10:01pm

Thu August 11, 2011
Around the Nation

Book Closes On U.S. House's Storied Page Program

If you walk through Congress when it's in session you'll see teenage pages wandering the halls. Pages have been in Congress since its inception, but this week the leaders of the House of Representatives announced the page program is no more.

The pages are exceptionally well-dressed, with blue blazers and conservative haircuts. Who are they?

Well, one former page is NPR's own Guy Raz, weekend host of All Things Considered. Raz, who was a page in the spring semester of 1991, was fascinated by politics, and he wanted to see government up close.

"I was 16; I had never really been outside of southern California," Raz says. "All of a sudden, I'm in Washington, D.C., with a group of other 16-year-olds from all over the country — from rural Mississippi and Ohio and reservations in Arizona."

Pages live together in a dorm, they get up really early and go to school at the Library of Congress. Then they go across the street and do the kind of work pages have always done.

Witnessing History

Even the Continental Congress had a page program, says former House historian Raymond Spock. Back then, the pages were basically doorkeepers. In the 1820s, the first official pages came along.

"Their main job was to carry messages to and from the legislative chamber, and all kinds of little chores that made them indispensable to the daily functioning of the institution," Spock says.

Meanwhile, they got to witness history. For instance, says Congressman John Dingell of Michigan, who was a page from 1936 to 1941, "Hitler declared war on the United States after Japan attacked us, and we declared war on Japan."

The page program has seen some ups and downs. There have been scandals: In the 1980s, Congressmen Gerry Studds and Dan Crane had sexual relationships with 17-year-old pages. Those scandals drove reform and more supervision. Then, in 2006, Florida Rep. Mark Foley resigned after sending explicit instant messages to several pages.

'Then, Electronics Came'

Still, it wasn't anything scandalous that House leaders Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner pointed to in their statement about why the program is getting cancelled. It was the cost: more than $5 million a year.

They argue that's just too much, considering how technology has made some page tasks obsolete.

"In the old days, the pages carried written messages. Then the telephones came, but then the pages had to answer the telephones. Then, the electronics came," Dingle says.

Now lawmakers can email a PDF file of a bill from their smartphones, their staff can just shoot them a quick text, and they can tweet at their fellow members.

What's left for pages to do?

A 'Majestic' Experience

"It's true, you are wasting a lot of time and taxpayer money, and you're just sitting there in the House," says Ricky Kreitner, who was a page in 2007. But, he adds, just being in the House is "majestic."

Now a 21-year-old college student at McGill, Kreitner says he didn't exactly witness legislative history — it was a slow session — but he brushed shoulders with Congressmen, saw President Bush walk out of an elevator and climbed through the Capitol attic to raise and lower the flag.

"You kind of climb through these really little passageways that are marked," Kreitner says. "All different pages from the past have written on the wall their thoughts and their experiences as a page. So then, you climb up this little metal staircase and then you un-hatch the little door to get up to the roof, and then you go up there and the massive Capitol dome is just staring you right in the face."

Nobody else — not even a Congressman — is allowed to do that task.

It's an experience for a young person that can't be quantified, Kreitner says, and the $5 million is "a pittance."

But there will still be some pages wandering the halls of the Capitol this fall, as the Senate page program will keep on going.

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