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Turning the Page

A Year After the House Program Was Ended, Capitol Hill Denizens Notice the Difference

Do people miss the House page program in the year since its termination?

The more jaded Capitol Hill staffers will tick off what they don’t miss: having to wait for elevators that were stalled by pages who kept holding the door open for every single one of their friends to scramble onboard.

Or having to wait in line at the Capitol Carryout at the end of the day. They’d just wanted to buy one cup of coffee, but half a dozen pages were queued up ahead, all looking to settle the tab on their favorite late-afternoon snack: chicken fingers and fries.

But staffers and lawmakers – often the same ones who just finished complaining – will also admit they miss the House pages’ spirit. They miss pages’ enthusiasm for the job, not yet tainted by the cynicism that the institution ultimately engenders.

“It was a daily tonic in an otherwise difficult environment to be reminded, as a Member, that there are a whole bunch of young people who believe in what we’re doing,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said.

The stories Roll Call collected on life on the House side of the Capitol in the year since the page program was dissolved suggest that the thousands of high school juniors who came to Washington, D.C., each year for nearly 200 years were part of the chamber’s cultural fabric, and it’s changed in their absence.

There’s less agreement on what, in recent years, pages brought to the professional table on Capitol Hill. Are there significant workforce gaps that have gone unfilled since the pages departed? To what extent have the day-to-day operations that fuel the legislative process been affected by the program’s elimination?

Do people miss the pages for what they symbolized or for what they contributed?

Absence Felt on the Floor

In August 2011, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) jointly announced that while the Senate page program would continue, the initiative on the House side would be shuttered because of steep costs and because the duties that pages once performed were now being made redundant by technology.

It’s difficult to quantify the cost-benefit of the move or whether it has had any real effect on how the House does its business. Several years ago, a formal study of the program was conducted to determine the cost breakdown, among other things, but the findings have never been made public.

But in the year since the pages have been absent, lawmakers and staffers can begin to assess whether Boehner and Pelosi were right in saying that pages, while well-loved, had generally outlived their usefulness.

House pages were responsible for administrative tasks coming out of their sponsoring Members’ offices, making runs to the flag office or to feed a new piece of legislation into the hopper. During votes, they assisted staffers in the Democratic and Republican cloakrooms by doing tabulations and delivering documents and messages to lawmakers on the House floor.

Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), who served as chairman of the House Page Board, concedes that the floor staffers probably notice a difference in their workload since the pages left.

“The ones who have to ring the bells now and go bring drinks, make sure the speaker has water and that kind of stuff – that used to be functions of two pages who would do that at all times,” Bishop said. “We haven’t been able to make that easier for [floor secretaries]. I think it’s been somewhat cumbersome for them.”

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), who said he spent “more time with [pages] than any other Member on both sides of the aisle,” agreed the House floor is one area where pages are missed.

“It’s created some issues for Members,” he explained. “Most of us are professional jugglers. It’s difficult to get messages, particularly phone messages, when we’re on the floor. Pages would deliver notes to Members that were very important.”

But on the whole, Bishop said he doubts people miss pages’ contributions all that much, in part because it’s been a long time since they’ve filled an essential role.

The House page job description, first conceived decades ago, stayed the same even as messages once scribbled on paper began to get zapped to mobile devices and legislation could be called up on office computers rather than run off the printers in the document office.

“There were lots of discussions on what to do with the pages, how we could expand their role to give them more meaningful things to do than running flags. So much of their workload … was now being done electronically,” Bishop said. “The last major job that the pages had to do was delivering flags, but that’s been automated now as well.”

The rise of the Congressional intern also made pages somewhat obsolete in more recent years, as did the growth of Congressional support staffs over the second half of the 20th century.

Representatives from several House offices interviewed by Roll Call said they rarely used pages; in cases where they did, they now dispatch interns.

“In the days before internships became de rigueur and staffs were smaller, pages filled a real need,” said one Congressional spokesman who held staff positions throughout the 1970s and 1980s. “Today, many documents are sent via email, and many offices maintain a regular cadre of interns who can fill in the gap.”

Missing the Mentoring Bond

One of the hallmarks of the House page program was the mentoring relationship that could be forged between pages and their supervisors.

“When a 16-year-old became a page, they were staff members. … The impression was definitely made that we were equals,” said Carlos De La Torre, a 2008 page and now a senior at Georgetown University. “And in many regards, because we were young, impressionable individuals, we looked up to the floor staffers as mentors. They were our supervisors, our models for how we should conduct ourselves.”

But while these relationships could play out between pages and staff, one House Member who asked not to be identified said it had been a long time since lawmakers could truly mentor pages. The 2006 scandal involving former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) sending sexually suggestive email correspondences with a young male page had a chilling effect on even strictly professional relationships between pages and Members.

“All of us had to be on our guard when we interacted with pages individually for fear it could be misconstrued,” the House Member told Roll Call. “Who could mentor a page after Mark Foley?”

Of course, not everyone took that approach.

“I would sit back there in the chamber with them and ask what they were doing, about their day. … I would try to fill the role of a parent,” Cleaver said. “My daughter was an intern in [then-Republican Missouri Sen.] Kit Bond’s office. I would have wanted someone to take that kind of interest in my daughter.”

De La Torre said he remembers the farewell he and his page class received from then-House Minority Leader Boehner.

“I remember the tears from Rep. Boehner as he cried during our graduation ceremony,” De La Torre said. “He said he would always go to Starbucks at 6 in the morning, start his day off early, and would see how energetic and ready for the day we were, and that would inspire him to move forward on his day.”