Viewpoint: A Former Page Says Don't Blame the Program

  • Share
  • Read Later
It's easy to dismiss the congressional page program as an antiquated, elitist form of serfdom. That's because it is. I should know — I myself journeyed to the Capitol a decade ago to become a Senate page. On a snowy January day, I moved into an $8 million dorm that housed a group of teenagers better connected than Jack Abramoff.

Yet it's hard to believe any of that matters. If it did, why has it been more than 20 years since there was any real discussion in Congress about ending the page program? The answer, of course, is that this century-old institution has now embarrassed the G.O.P. and House Speaker Dennis Hastert. Allegations that Rep. Mark Foley had inappropriate contact with male pages, and that Republicans in power may have known about the allegations long before any action was taken, suggest that someone in the leadership slipped up — and many believe the quickest fix is to get rid of pages altogether.

That, to say the least, is flawed thinking. Shutting down the page program now would be tantamount to admitting the House leadership can't protect a few dozen teenagers in its keep from the most egregious types of harm. If that's the case, then why should November voters trust them on, well, just about any other conceivable matter?

Such action also smacks of blaming the victim. It's important to remember that these young men and women, though all bright and accomplished high school students, are still teenagers. Thousands apply for this prestigious program, and the lucky few accepted arrive, somewhat bizarrely, truly interested in witnessing government in action. We are willing to fetch water, memorize names and faces of members, and deliver paperwork all for this privilege. Along the way, of course, we gain a lifelong passion for government and public service, we learn about what it's like to live away from home, and in my case, meet peers who remain our closest friends years later.

But when parents send their children off to Washington, they assume it is into the care of responsible adults — at least mine did. Foley was one of those adults. He offered the pages that he befriended something he knew would be irresistible for these future wonks — access to power. In doing so, it was he who acted inappropriately, he who should have known better. Foley should therefore be held accountable for the interactions between the pages and himself, not the program he allegedly took advantage of.

That, however, does not let Hastert and the others who oversee the page program off the hook. When I was a page, I did not know any Senators personally. Sure, Bob Dole once told me my shoes needed to be polished, I woke Senator Jesse Helms up from many a nap, and I watched on multiple occasions as Sen. Strom Thurmond pinched my fellow female pages' behinds. But none of these things happened far from the Senate floor, and I can't remember more than a handful of times in the Capitol that I wasn't well supervised.

Paging should not be sacrificed because internal House oversight is presently incapable of monitoring certain members' behavior and interaction with the pages. Instead, change who is in Congress, change how Congress is run, or change the House's administration of the page program — just don't shelve an otherwise amazing program for kids.