The House ethics committee might take less than a month to "get to the bottom of this so-called sex scandal" that allegedly involves members of Congress and pages, but the probe of drug-use charges will go on much longer, a committee member said yesterday.
"The fundamental problem is that America is a drug culture," Rep. Bill Alexander (D-Ark.), said in an interview after the committee's second meeting on the issue.
"You go to any junior high school and drugs are pervasive. But it's very difficult to prove anything."
Alexander, whose 14-year-old daughter is a Senate page for the summer, said the ethics committee spent most of its closed one-hour meeting yesterday on choosing a special counsel to guide the investigation.
Alexander said committee chairman Rep. Louis Stokes (D-Ohio) hopes to name someone this week.
"My suspicion is we're going to get to the bottom of this so-called sex scandal very quickly, before the August 20 recess. The drugs are another matter," he said.
Alexander also wound up hearings of a special commission he heads that was appointed by House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill to recommend changes in the page system. "No one made a case for abolition of the system," he said, "but reforms of some kind are obviously necessary."
Capitol Page School principal John Hoffman told the commission that fewer than a dozen of the 1,300 pages in the system over the last 13 years had had "serious problems," a figure he called "a remarkable record."
The system operates with six teachers and a $244,000 annual budget, which also covers supervised study halls for 45 to 50 non-page students every year, he said.
This news appeared to surprise the panel members. Hoffman said the non-page pupils are minors employed by members of Congress in various ways, since congress exempted itself from laws governing child labor.
"Once you hire 'em, there's no limit on how much you can make 'em sweat," said former California representative Charles Wiggins, a commission member who opposes using pages younger than college age.
Assistant Capitol Architect William Ensign told the panel that renovations to either the old Congressional Hotel or the former Capitol Hill Apartments, now House and Senate office buildings respectively, could provide centralized housing for the 101 pages for about $375,000.
The pages would have to eat in nearby House or Senate cafeterias, but building a complex including a gym, dining hall and school could cost $9 million to $10 million, he said.
Rep. Bobbi Fiedler (R-Calif.) said trying for a new building would kill any effort to reform the page system. She said pages could get value from the Capitol Hill experience with 90-day appointments awarded by merit, "but there's no question in my mind that the House can get the service less expensively just by hiring messengers."
Alexander said the panel hopes to report its findings to O'Neill by the end of the month.