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Cassil: Can Mr. Smith Still Go to Washington?

Since 1774, in some capacity, Congress has employed pages. These young men and women serve their country honorably by fulfilling a variety of tasks to keep the House floor running smoothly. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) recently decided to end the page program, citing its $5 million annual cost as the primary reason for its cancellation.

Many pose the question of why leaders decided to cut the program entirely, rather than reforming it and making it fiscally stable (perhaps partially through alumni donations). Others ask why this vital program — accounting for about 1/100,000 of the legislative branch budget — is getting scrapped while taxpayer dollars are being spent building mosques abroad, and twice as much is spent on iPods for government employees.

Across the political spectrum, people are upset by this decision.

“I’m appalled and devastated by it. I think it’s the most wonderful opportunity a young person in America possibly could have,” said former Clerk of the House Donnald K. Anderson. “People often look at the bottom line, rather than the long term or overall good. It’s just another piece of history that’s being eliminated.”

The page program is not designed for “rich kids.” According to one former page, “There were lots of kids who wouldn’t otherwise have a chance to get to D.C. Their families weren’t in politics, and they had no connections. But being a page really gave them a foundation from which to build something good.”

As a teenager working on my small farm in North Carolina, I was appointed as a page by my Congresswoman, Republican Virginia Foxx.

The greatness of the program was exemplified by the opportunities and experiences that changed my character from a quiet, hardworking farm boy to a more well-rounded young man that was soon debating foreign policy with Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas).

Perhaps one of the most significant advantages of the page program is its ability to transcend all backgrounds and class levels to bring 75 young adults to experience legislative action. Pages in my class watched Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) give a 50-minute “special order”: “They are not called ‘Holiday Trees.’ They are called ‘Christmas Trees,’ and that’s just the way it is.”

On his first day, fellow pages and I informed a new Member of Congress about the details of the floor, including how to vote and what voting lights and bells on Congressional clocks signified.

More important than the tasks pages are given, however, is the purpose of the program: These high school students are given the rare opportunity to contribute to our nation’s political process in action.

They become familiar with the regular proceedings of our unique House of Representatives — the legislative branch most closely connected to the people of the United States of America.

Pages leave the program with a burning sense of patriotism and a duty of public service in whatever form that might take.

On our first day as pages, Anderson reminded us of the charts shown to elementary school students about how laws are made. When the chart shows a bill going through committees and to a House vote, pages were the arrows on the chart orchestrating the action.

The page program has other important purposes that will remain unfulfilled with its termination. Because pages get an insider’s look into the actions of Congress, they regularly tell their friends and family from back home the details of current proceedings in Congress that don’t always get reported in the media.

The end of the program brings many questions. Who will fulfill pages’ current responsibilities? Will unpaid intern positions be created, giving only better-off collegiate students employment? What role can high school students play in their government? Who will follow in the footsteps of giants such as Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) — the dean of the House and a former page — when there are no more pages?

Countless pages have found inspiration in the program and have gone on to successful careers in law, politics and business to become judges, governors, Members of Congress and CEOs.

With the fiscal hardships we are facing, it seems a false economy to deprive America of such a valuable experience for future leaders. Can small-town students with no experience in politics still become leaders of political thought?

John Paul Cassil is a management/entrepreneurship major and political science minor at Clemson University. He served as a House page in 2007.

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