On a day when the big news was the large drop in the stock markets, U.S. House leaders announced a historic change, as Speaker John Boehner and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi shocked Capitol Hill by revealing their plans to end the House Page program at the end of this month.
It should be quickly disclosed that I started my working career on Capitol Hill as a Page in the summer of 1980, a $640 per month job which provided me with an invaluable knowledge of Congress that has certainly helped me in my job as a reporter.
It also provided me with many stories that I still tell today, thirty one years later. It’s not often that you can talk about how one lamwaker tried to make you tend flowers at the Botanic Gardens instead of working on the House floor.
Or there’s the story of the Congressman who yelled up at the Speaker of the House about me, “Tip, this kid’s trying to give me diarrhea!”
I was on the House floor when the Reagan budget and tax plans were passed, I rang the bells to notify House members of votes and part of my job at one point was climbing on to the roof to raise the flag over the House wing of the Capitol each day.
The experiences are ones that I will never forget – and will take up more than few pages in the book I’m slowly writing.
Over the years, I have repeatedly taken the time to chat with Pages about their own time in the Congress, and to tell them how it kept me around the Capitol years later.
And so, when the announcement came that the Page program was ending, I found myself struggling a bit with the story that I had to write.
“I am appalled,” said Jonathan Turley, a well known law professor at George Washington University, who was a Page in the late 1970’s.
It is a terrible decision,” Turley told me by email. “I was floored.”
But to others, it made sense.
“It’s a smart move,” one senior House staffer told me. “It was such a liability.”
It was a decision that seemed to come out of Left Field, but had evidently been fully reviewed in recent months by the House leadership.
“Changes in technology have obviated the need for most Page services,” said a letter sent to lawmakers by Boehner and Pelosi, saying that where Pages once ferried documents around Capitol Hill, now those are sent by email.
“The program’s high costs are difficult to justify, especially in light of diminished benefits to the House,” said the letter, citing “per-Page costs for a two-semester school year of $69,000-$80,000.”
It wasn’t immediately clear if that included salaries paid to the Pages, which were equal to just under $22,000 for a full year job; the Speaker’s letter quoted an estimate that the Page program cost over $5 million per year.
“I am sorry to see this historic program come to a close, however, the reality is that advancements in technology have drastically reduced the need that once existed for House Pages,” said Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), one of four members on the House Page Board.
The decision comes five years after a Page scandal erupted around former Rep. Mark Foley, after the Florida Republican was found to have sent sexually suggestive messages to Pages.
While no evidence was ever found that Foley engaged in any improper behavior, the controversy caused some to wonder if the Page program should be scrapped, though Speaker Boehner’s letter noted that “oversight and coordination of the program has improved in recent years.”
But that wasn’t enough to save it from the budget knife, as well as the scrap heap of history.
The timing of the announcement was very interesting, coming with the Congress on recess for four weeks – giving supporters of the Page program no time to rally the wagons and save it.
Pages first started officially serving the House in the 1820’s. Some of them went on to become members of Congress, like Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, the Dean of the House.
Some, like Dingell, were the sons of members of Congress. I was a Page with a few kids like that as well in 1980 and 1981, with names like AuCoin, Fauntroy, Leahy and Dingell, too.
For those who share the last names of current and former lawmakers, they will always have a leg up on others in order to get a job on Capitol Hill.
That’s why I feel bad for the kids who were plucked out of nowhere to serve as a Page, because that time in Washington might just propel that teenager into a career of public service.
Or political journalism, as in my case.
The move may not save that much money, but with soaring budget deficits, it likely won’t be the last insider change we see in the Capitol in coming years.
Still, it seems hard to believe the kids in the blue blazers and grey slacks and skirts won’t be around any longer on the House floor.
Sure, they’ll still find someone to ring the bells for votes and to raise the flag each day.
But it won’t be the same old eye-opening experience that a 15 or 16 year old kid would have had.