The Hill Life: Killing the Page Program

Aug 10, 2011

photo courtesy of the APWhen I heard that the House was ending the 200-year-old Page Program, I was floored.  The Page Program is an institution, a tradition, and around here the old ways die hard.  It just seems unfathomable that it’s ending.

Almost as unbelievable as the fact that Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi actually agreed on something.

I understand that the program costs the House $5 million annually and that we’re all looking at ways to cut costs.  And I recognize that the program has popped up in a few tabloid scandals over the decades.  But this program’s value to the participants and the country far outweigh the costs.

Over the past two decades, roughly 4,000 young people have been pages on the House side alone.  Their experience teaches them about government, builds a foundation for a lifetime of civic engagement and has a balloon effect on their families, schools and communities.

How many staffers used to be pages?  How many Members?  How many political journalists, lobbyists, party employees, non-profit do-gooders, and Administration officials?

I took a quick look through my Rolodex and I know 17 people who were pages, and those are just the ones who talk about it.  

We are facing an engagement drought in this country.  Our teenagers are growing less interested in government, less interested in what happens in this country and across the globe.  And they’re becoming more engrossed in a virtual world based on commercialism and social networks where what they had for dinner and what song they’re listening to is an important status update.

Yet, each year, thousands of teens apply to the House Page Program just for the opportunity to work for Congress.  They want to see this government in action with their own eyes.  They want to attend the lectures, take the trips and meet the other teenagers who might one day grow up to walk the marble halls or wear Member pins or have bylines in the dailies.

Mr. Boehner and Mrs. Pelosi argue that the program isn’t necessary because technology has made errand runners obsolete.  Well, until they can convince the dozens of Capitol Hill offices (looking at you House Telecom and GOP Cloakroom) that are living in the stone age to change their ways, you better add another paid staffer to each office.  Because my staff assistant will never get her work done if she has to go to the Cloakroom five times per day and pick up the flags herself and do the half-dozen other things that we rely on the pages to do.

And if obsolescence is really the problem, why not try to change the program to meet emerging needs?  Why eliminate a valueable program when you can evolve?  

And if it’s fiscally unsound, why not look at ways to retool the program to save money?  Can you honestly tell me that you won’t have to hire paid door openers, flag deliverers, phone answerers, etc. to replace the pages?  Because, if not, I know a few people who just had their duties doubled or tripled.

I’m really disappointed in the decision to shutdown the page program.  The stupid Mark Foley thing aside, I don’t know anyone who was a page who didn’t love and benefit from the experience.  And in a world where civic engagement is lacking across generations, but especially among young people, cutting the program seems like a nail in the coffin.  

Because while the Speaker says that they’re going to look at ways to keep young people involved in civics, I doubt another half-assed, poorly-funded national program will have half the impact that educating 200 emissaries per year has on this nation’s present and future.

If you’d like to sign the petition expressing support for the House Page Program, click here.

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  1. cginnyc says:

    This is not about the pages' job becoming obsolete but about what that type of experience and exposure can do to inspire young people and educate them about the legislative process. As Belle says, the program could be changed to make the page duties more relevant.

    As an aside, I saw this on FB today – not sure whether it's true:

    Salary of retired US Presidents ………….$180,000 for life
    Salary of House/Senate …………………..$174,00​0 for life
    Salary of Speaker of the House …………$223,500 for life
    Salary of Majority/Minority Leaders …… $193,400 for life
    Average Salary of a teacher ……………. $40,065
    Average Salary of Soldier deployed in Afghanistan $38,000
    I think we found where the cuts should be made!

  2. georgiacat says:

    cginnyc–those numbers are not correct, at least the “for life” part. Members (elected after 1984) are part of the Federal Employees' Retirement System–amount of pension depends on years of service and can never exceed 80% of their final salary (which can admittedly get high–I had to calculate Charlie Rangel's to answer some angry constituent mail. It was far higher than it should be, quite frankly, but he's been around forever). Here's the politifact article on it: https://www.politifact.com/rhode-island/statements/2011/may/29/chain-email/email-message-says-members-congress-get-full-pensi/

  3. Nicole says:

    As a former Senate page and current intern devoted to Capitol Hill Style, thanks for taking a stand on this issue. It's an unparalleled experience for young people.

  4. Ms. B says:

    Hear, hear!

  5. TA says:

    I wouldn't use “stupid” in front of Mark Foley's name. I know what he did wasn't right but that's not the real reason why the page program is being canceled.

  6. P says:

    I personally don't think “stupid” goes far enough. A power figure and member of Congress who sends sexually explicit emails and texts to teenage boys is disgusting, period.

  7. Belle says:

    TA- Say page program in D.C., or anywhere for that matter, and ppl automatically think Mark Foley. Read the news coverage of the shutdown of the program, every article mentions the sex scandals.

  8. I agree with you Belle. The Page Program is important for all the reasons you stated. But so many worthwhile programs are on the chopping block during this financial crises/fiasco/black hole of doom. How do we decide what to cut? If we save this program what will we lose? Is it worth raising taxes? I think so, but I'm a Democrat. (This is not meant to be a slam at Republicans)

  9. A page mom says:

    What is the real reason they are cancelling this? Another use for the dorm maybe? Run the stats on the scandals–maybe ten people out of thousands? Something does not add up here.

    I hope the Senate is more respectful of the value of the program for the institution and the young people involved.

  10. KFra says:

    I completely agree, both about the page program and that the Speaker and the Minority Leader decided something together. A good friend of mine who was a page was one of the loudest voices encouraging me to move to DC. Now I'm a staffer. It absolutely has a ripple effect.

  11. Belle says:

    I think the “real” reason is money with a hint of “Let's protect ourselves from future scandals.”

  12. Belle says:

    No Drama Momma- The way funding works is that you can only move money inside your individual Approps bill. There are twelve covering every issue area (State and Foreign Operations, Interior, Agriculture, etc.).

    The page program is paid for out of the Legislative Branch Approps budget. So they can't cut this $5 mil and give it to say, special education or agricultural programs, the savings would have to be spent inside the House or not at all. So you're not giving up anything else if you spend this $5 mil, just $5 mil in savings. And given that the workload these kids do will have to end up on someone's shoulders, it could very easily cut into their alleged savings.

  13. A says:

    I was a House page, and it certainly shaped my future! I'm back on the hill, and couldn't imagine doing anything else, in part because I fell in love with this place as a 16 year-old. I learned more floor procedure in those few weeks than I have in the years since, and it's been incredibly valuable for me career wise to say “I was a House page.” People on the hill recognize that it means you can manage yourself around members, you know the complex, and you know at least a bit of floor procedure.

    That being said, I think at the bare minimum, there was a need for change in the program. Not because of the scandals, but because of the way the floor has changed. Anyone who's been on the floor in recent years can tell you that members aren't receiving messages from pages anymore. They're communicating by blackberry. So much of what I did as a page has been replaced by technology, so the program has become a bunch of kids sitting on a back bench.

    Is cancelling the program the solution? Probably not, but leaving it as is, without a view of the value add to the House would be misguided as well.

  14. TA says:

    If I can recall, in 1983, both Rep. Dan Crane (R-IL) and Rep. Gerry Studds (D-MA) were reprimanded for engaging in a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old congressional page.

    Anyways, it's about time the page program ends. It costs too much money.

  15. Belle, thanks for the info. I didn't know that!

  16. Dr. Jean Grey says:

    I support cutting the page program although it obviously isn't easy. We are under severe budget constraints. All offices have staff who can cover page duties. I do not think the pages were effectively used and, while did give many people great experiences, cannot justify the cost. Congress needs to make cuts and many of them, like the page program, won't be pretty. But they ARE necessary.

  17. Laura says:

    I agree about the value of the page program, but don't interns do the flag runs and cloakroom trips in many offices?

  18. Belle says:

    DJG– We're making lots of cuts. We cut MRAs and Committee budgets by double digit numbers and we're still cutting. Why slash this program when there is SOOO much other waste you could cut?

    Like why do the tour guides make $50k+ per year? Why do the Capitol Police take so much overtime (I knew a CapPol officer who had racked up almost five months of paid days off because of OT he worked.)? Why is there a man in the parking garage who sits there all day manning the crosswalk?

    Any staffer who has been here more than six months can list off dozens of things that could and should be cut before the page program. But unlike the Cap Police, the carpentry shop, the AOC and all the other Hill employees, the teenagers in the page program don't have a union. And the Members won't fight too hard if it allows them to travel and send mail and buy new computers every Congress. So the pages are the easiest thing to eliminate.

  19. Belle says:

    Laura- In my office, the interns are needed to man the phones and sort the thousands of pieces of mail we get per week. They also give tours, go to committee hearings, etc. On a slow day, it's no thing for me to send them to the Cloakroom. But on a busy day, and they all seem busy lately, having one of them gone for 30-45 to run these errands can be a burden.

    During the debt ceiling, the phones war a nightmare. And every time an intern left the workload on the Leg Shop doubled. I was staying an extra hour to two hours every night covering up for the lost productivity from answering the phones.

  20. Belle says:

    TA- There are ways to make the program cost less. If they tried that, and it didn't work, fine. But I don't think that was even discussed.

    And if we responded to every scandal by eliminating the mode of that scandal, I would have no Blackberry, no Internet Access, and I'd only be able to speak to Members through 3″ plexi glass under video surveillance. We'd also have no interns.

  21. Belle says:

    Belle- That makes sense. In my Senate office, we usually have four interns and two SAs and a mail coordinator, so it's not as much of a challenge. It seems House offices may need to the program even more (though I think it should continue to exist in the Senate too). Always helpful to hear how things work on the other side.

  22. grlnextdoor says:

    I just had a younger relative finished the page program on August 5th, and I did have a few issues with it. For one, the hall monitor was right out of college, getting free room and board, and a salary of $50K. Hello? Do you know any House staffer making that type of dough right out of college? Plus, can we not agree that room and board are probably what eat up all our salaries (besides Belle's clothing suggestions).

    Also, not as many members access the pages like they used to. Many of the pages I met would be done with their jobs in 2-3 hours that they are getting paid to do all day. Further more, my 16-year-old relative walked away with $1000 cash (that's after taxes and paying for her dorm room). She worked for six weeks, two weeks were recess with little work. Once again, who made that type of dough when 16? Clearly minimum wage was much lower when I was 16..

    Despite my complaints, I thought the program was an excellent experience for my relative, and I wish it was still in place for future High Schoolers. The money in that program would need to be reformed and reviewed. BUT since when does the government know how to reform money? It's easier just to cut, cut, cut.

    P.S. The program cost more than $5 million – that's just administrative costs. Here is what CNN is actually reporting:

    “The leaders' review found that the program cost over $5 million a year to administer, not including the costs of housing the students at the nearby dormitory on Capitol Hill, plus the cost of the school the high school juniors are required to attend at the Library of Congress.

    At a time when Congress is struggling to reduce spending, including cutting its own costs, the “per page” cost of $69,000 to $80,000 per school year was a steep number to sustain.”

  23. gingerr says:

    I have to agree that 69-80K per page, while less than the cost of a job “saved” by the 2009 stimulus, does seem high.
    It seems there must be other ways to expose high school students to Congress, some that might even reach more students.

  24. Belle says:

    Grlnextdoor- Like I said, there were definitely ways that the program could have saved money. Maybe just run summers. But the fact that they didn't even try is what bothers me.

  25. Lynn says:

    While I agree it's a great program, let's face the facts. Pages come from upper middle class families who already have an advantage in the game. $5M is a drop in the bucket, but I'd rather drop it in the bucket for truly disadvantaged teenagers who need a real civic education that will help them in the day to day.

  26. hillybilly says:

    AMEN!!! Well said, Belle!! You said what many of us were thinking.

  27. Belle says:

    Lynn- How many pages do you know? When I first moved to DC a friend's sister had to sleep on my coach for two days before she started the page program because she couldn't afford a hotel room and had to fly in two days early because it was the cheapest ticket, which she still had to raise money from family and friends to buy. Not every page is from a well-off family.

    And I highly doubt that cutting the page program will lead to any kind of real civic education for anyone, esp. not disadvantaged students.

  28. Tia says:

    Lynn, I think your bias is showing.

  29. grlnextdoor says:

    Lynn – I'm right there with Belle. My relative had to stay with me before she moved in because she couldn't afford a hotel. Two of her roommates had single moms, and both of the singles moms drove their kids across country to get them to the program because it was more affordable than flights. Yes, some were spoiled, rich kids, but that speaks only towards the Member nominating the Page. Some Members actually recognized the value of sending qualified kids without looking at the parents' pocket books and donation history.

  30. jes says:

    I was a former page – Fall 2007 – and I loved every single second of it. I understand that it is a costly program but the experience and the tradition that comes with it cannot be matched with any other thing a 16 year old can do. I loved that I had the opportunity to see what really happens in the Capitol. Being a Page truly solidified my love of government and my interest to pursue a career in public service. I feel that we need to be grateful for any and all programs that enable young people to be engaged with politics and really think about the world around them.

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