Time to Close the Book on Washington Pages?

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Congressional pages listen to the State of the Union address by President George W. Bush, in the House Chamber.

If former Speaker Tip O'Neill still led the House of Representatives today, the Congressional page program might be shut down once and for all. In 1983, he threatened to do just that in the wake of another scandal involving a Congressman and a teenage page. At the time, the House was investigating allegations that two Congressmen had sexual relations with teenage pages. Representatives Daniel Crane, an Illinois Republican, and Gerry Studds, a Democrat from Massachusetts, were eventually censured for having had sex with a female page and male page, respectively.

The scandal led to changes in the page program — including raising the age of pages from 14 to 16, housing the pages in a supervised dormitory, and establishing a page board to oversee the program. "I think we have everything under control now," O'Neill was quoted as saying in the New York Times. "I don't think we ought to abolish the system. But I will say this: One more scandal and bam! The page system is through."

Twenty-three years and another sex scandal later, it's House Speaker Dennis Hastert's turn to scrutinize the page program. Facing growing criticism over his handling of the scandal, Hastert announced Thursday that he is launching an investigation to evaluate and make improvements to the program. "We will do everything possible to make the program safe for the kids while they are in our care in Washington, D.C., and to make sure we can be a resource for their parents once they return home," Hastert said at a press conference outside his office in Batavia, Ill., where he explained that while he was sorry for what had happened he had no intention of resigning his leadership position. "I haven't done anything wrong," said Hastert.

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No one has yet been named to lead the investigation, though Louis Freeh, the former FBI director, was Hastert's potential pick. Before Thursday's press conference, Hastert called House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi to say that he was planning to name Freeh. Pelosi objected, telling Hastert, "We need to talk about this and we need to work in a bipartisan way," according to her press secretary, Brendan Daly. Hastert subsequently did not name Freeh at his press conference.

Hastert's announcement of the investigation comes three days after Representative Ray LaHood, a fellow Illinois Republican and friend of Hastert, called for the page program to be temporarily suspendend. "This is a flawed program," LaHood told TIME. "The fact that a member of Congress is sending e-mails to a page and that he can get away with it [shows that] obviously there are problems." Two more Republican representatives, Jon Porter of Nevada and Kay Granger of Texas, also supported LaHood's reccommendation to suspend the page program until an outside team could evaluate its security protocol.

One problem is that the approximately 70 House pages are also in school. When Congress is in session during the school year, the pages attend private, junior-level classes each morning at the Library of Congress. In order not to disrupt their studies, Porter's chief of staff, Mike Hesse, suggested the pages' legislative duty be suspended while they finish up the semester at the Library of Congress.

Meanwhile the Office of the Clerk, which runs the House page program, has established a toll-free hotline for current or former pages — and their parents — to report any tips related to Mark Foley or to the page program. The hotline is Hastert's own doing. "As the Speaker, I take responsibility for everything in the building," he said in a statement Thursday morning. "The buck stops here. The safety and security of the students in the page program is imperative."

The House page program is separate from the Senate's program. Approximately 30 pages are a part of that program, which is run by the Sergeant of Arms Office in the Senate. Calls inquiring possible changes to the Senate page program were not returned.

Both page programs trace their roots to 1829, when Senator Daniel Webster appointed a 9-year-old boy to be his personal gopher. Since then thousands of young men — and eventually young women — have come to Washington to run errands for the members of Congress. Like many jobs in Washington, getting hired as a page often means having the right political connections. The work is also grueling, especially during the school year, when pages start class at 6:45 a.m. and can stay on the House or Senate floor late into the night.

Many pages have only fond memories of their experiences on Capitol Hill. Megan Smith recalls how much closer she got to representatives as a House page than later as a legislative aide. "The experience was much different as a page — we were sitting on the House floor for six or seven hours a day," says Smith, 23, who was a page from 1999 to 2000.

Yet it's exactly that intimacy with Congressmen that worries LaHood. "I think this an antiquated program — it's been over 100 years and needs a total evaluation for the sake of the kids," he said. "Having 15- and 16-year-old young men and women come to Washington, work on the House floor, and work in an environment where members of Congress if they want to can prey on them is not a healthy situation."

Of course, Foley has so far been linked via e-mails and instant messages only to former pages, not to teenagers who were in the program at the time. Which means that even if the page program were terminated immediately, the potential for problems will not disappear. But it will prove that former Speaker O'Neill was more foresightful than he knew.