In summer 1977, I walked on to the floor of the House of Representatives for the first time as a congressional page. Pushing through the chamber’s heavy doors, a scared kid from Chicago, I found myself in the midst of a boisterous debate that had members and pages running in every direction. I was 15 years old, and it was the beginning of an experience that would shape my life as it has the lives of thousands of other kids over the course of nearly 200 years.
That tradition is about to end without debate or discussion.
This week, Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., suddenly eliminated the House page program without warning or consultation — purportedly to save $5 million a year. The decision came after years of offers by former pages to take over the program and generate private support that could put it on more solid financial footing. Pelosi and Boehner have b oth consistently ignored such proposals.
At a time when Congress and the White House are burning through hundreds of billions of dollars to wage three wars, it’s hard to believe that saving a mere $5 million is really the motive for ending the program. There has long been a suspicion that the House leadership would like to discontinue having pages for a different reason: to end the scandals caused by a few deranged members.
It’s true there have been problems with the program, but they have been due almost entirely to the members themselves, including some who sexually harassed or had sex with the teenage pages. But a program run by former pages would be a far better deterrent to abusive members, since we would not hesitate to address alleged misconduct.
Boehner and Pelosi have also said that pages are an anachronism and that technology has supplanted their role. Yet the leadership chose to simply announce the termination of a nearly 200-year-old institution without even considering the possibility of changes to the role the pages play.
While it’s true that messages and documents are now usually transmitted electronically, carrying messages was never the sole role pages performed — nor the primary reason for having them. The page system has allowed the rising generation to be present as Congress debates the laws that will shape their future.
As a page, I met and worked with some of my heroes, including Barbara Jordan and Mo Udall. And then there came the day when Hubert Humphrey came to speak on the House floor. I adored Humphrey, and it apparently showed. A Democratic member saw me and said, “Jonathan, I think you deserve a seat today.”
Under the shocked eye of my supervisor, the member sat me down next to him to hear Humphrey. Afterward, he pushed me forward, past waiting members, and said “Hubert, I have someone who would like to say something to you, Page Jonathan Turley.” I froze, unable to speak. Humphrey smiled warmly, took my hand in his and said, “Well, Jonathan, you think about what you want to say and come by my office.” To my surprise, his office actually called and invited me to stop in. But shortly before I was to do so, in January 1978, Humphrey died.
After hearing the news late that night, I sat on the Supreme Court steps facing the Capitol and sobbed. A guard came to shoo me away, but on seeing my grief, he instead just patted me on the shoulder and told me to stay as long as I wanted.
Among the ranks of former pages are many who went on to become senators or congressmen, business leaders (including Bill Gates) and other successful professionals. But whatever they went on to do, all the former pages I know carry deep and indelible marks from their service — among them, a sense of idealism that doesn’t fade.
The loss of such a unique institution is hard to quantify. The page program doesn’t generate campaign contributions or other benefits that motivate members and lobbyists. But it profoundly affects those who participate.
One of my most lasting memories of being a page was the first time I was asked to raise the flag that flies above the House when it is in session. I climbed a rickety wooden ladder leading to the top of the Capitol, and there came upon a wall with the names of pages going back many decades. I then opened up a hatch and walked out on a plank no more than a foot wide to reach the flag pole . After focusing on not falling through the aged wood, I reached the pole and looked up. I was overwhelmed.
The sun had just risen over Washington, turning the sky a radiant red. Below me the members were resuming a loud and passionate debate over the neutron bomb. I stood there in the quiet of the morning with the flag flapping in the wind, the Washington monument and Lincoln Memorial stretched out before me. The connection I felt was not just to the pages who had stood there before me but to our unique republic. I felt both the raw, unlimited promise of a free nation and the obligation to serve it.
Congress should not end one of its most inspirational institutions after two centuries with less fanfare than a deleted earmark. The page program deserved better. It can be preserved if the House leadership will only give us a chance.
Jonathan Turley is a professor at George Washington Law School and is a former House leadership page. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.