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Editorial: Page of the Past

House Leadership Handled the End of the House Page Program Poorly

Well, at least Republican and Democratic House leaders have agreed on something.

But what Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) concurred on last week — abruptly killing the House page program after nearly 200 years of existence — could have been handled much better.

The leaders did the deed with a terse press release after Congress was in recess, with little forewarning to Members, the public or past and prospective pages. There were no hearings and there was no evident consideration of alternatives. What’s more, the consultant study used to justify the act has not been released — and won’t be, leadership spokesmen say.

According to the press release, two firms — Strategic Assets Consulting and Fieldstone Consulting Inc. — found that modern electronic technology has obviated the need for high-school-age messengers and that the cost of the program — $5 million a year, or $69,000 to $80,000 per page — was unwarranted.

We are not about to quarrel with either conclusion. The pony express was storied but was rendered unnecessary by railroads. And typewriters are now mostly quaint artifacts in the computer age. Moreover, $80,000 is a lot to spend on nostalgia, particularly when education budgets are being slashed.

Top House aides cite another good reason for ending the program: The 72 young people selected to serve each semester tended to be wealthy and politically connected, not representative of the citizenry.

On the other hand, as many former pages have complained — and even the leaders admitted in a “Dear Colleague” letter — the program had a purpose beyond message delivery: “The young people selected are afforded a unique educational experience that includes working with lawmakers and fellow Pages from across the country and observing legislative proceedings firsthand from their traditional posts at the rear of the House Chamber.”

Boehner and Pelosi wrote that “while the traditional mission of the Page Program has diminished, we look forward to working with Members … to find ways to enable America’s young people to continue to engage in the important work of the Congress in addition to the internships that most offices already sponsor.”

Which raises the obvious question: Why on earth did Boehner and Pelosi not instruct their consultants to investigate and recommend youth-engagement opportunities? Why did they not put out the word that the page program was endangered in its current form so Members and others might consider alternatives?

As to the funding, it’s entirely possible that former pages or foundations might have raised money for a rich engagement program open to promising young people of all income groups on a merit basis. As Boehner and Pelosi wrote to their colleagues, respected experts have looked at the program twice before — in 2008 and 2010 — and recommended reforms that “improved [the program] in recent years.”

The Senate, more tradition-bound than the House, is determined to keep its page program intact even though Senators tend to talk to each other more frequently than House Members — and are also equipped with BlackBerrys.

We suggest that its leaders begin reviews and internal discussions to devise new means of employing young people before the same imperatives that killed the House program affect the Senate program, too.

The Senate certainly could proceed with more evident deliberation than writing an August press release.

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