Before last fall, relatively few Americans knew much about the page program. Even fewer knew of Congressman Mark Foley. In September, news broke that Foley, a Florida Republican, had sent sexually explicit e-mails and instant messages to a male former page in 2005. Foley immediately resigned, and House Republican leaders came under fire for not taking any action, despite being warned about Foley's inappropriate actions with male pages as early as 2003. House Democrats demanded an investigation, and a handful of Congress members called for the page program's immediate suspension.
Six months later, the Democrats have taken over Congress and a House Ethics Committee investigation concluded that Republican leaders did not break any rules in handling Foley's actions toward the pages. Not only does the House page program remain intact, it has received a record number of applications since the Foley scandal broke, according to the House's Office of the Clerk, which runs the program. A year earlier, the House page program couldn't even fill all of its available slots.
It seems like an ironic twist of events, yet those close to the program say the increased interest has everything to do with the Foley scandal. "People hadn't heard about the program before last fall," says Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, a West Virginia Republican and veteran member of the House Page Board, the bipartisan committee that oversees the program. Democratic Rep. Dale Kildee of Michigan, who chairs the board, agrees. "I think the unfortunate bad publicity of Mark Foley brought attention to the fact that we do have a page program," he says.
The House Page Program dates back to 1827, when boys were hired to work as messengers in Congress. Today about 70 teenagers, now of both sexes, work at the House as pages. They wear matching navy suits, live together in a supervised dorm on Capitol Hill, attend private classes early in the morning and spend the rest of the day running messages for Congress members. If a bill is being voted on, pages could work past midnight. Unlike most interns on Capitol Hill, pages do get paid, earning about $1,500 a month. (They must pay for their own housing.) Most House pages stay for a semester or the summer. The Senate also employs about 20 pages at a time.
Supporters of the House page program call it a national honor. "Even though the pages are performing clerical types of tasks, they are gaining an inside knowledge of Congress that few Americans will ever get," says Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado, who is a new member of the House Page Board. Because they are minors and under the supervision of Congress, pages are not permitted to talk with the press. But a dozen former pages who spoke with TIME were unanimous in their raves for the program. "You have such amazing access," says Zack C. Hall, a sophomore at the University of Texas at Austin. "It was the place to be if you watch C-Span at the age of 16."
The House Page Board created by former House Speaker Tip O'Neill following two earlier page-related scandals involving Congressmen Daniel Crane and Gerry Studds has been strengthened in response to the Foley scandal. By the time of the Foley scandal, the board was only meeting once a year. When its then chairman, Rep. John Shimkus of Missouri, was alerted to Foley's inappropriate activities, he did not inform the rest of the board some of whom found out about Foley only when the story broke on TV.
Under Kildee, who became the board's new chair in January, the board will meet monthly and has expanded to include a former page and the parent of a current page. The board also plans to revise the rulebook that governs the program, and expects to educate members of Congress on how to establish proper relationships with pages. Since the Foley scandal, many lawmakers have steered clear of pages. "Members are now much less likely to engage pages in conversation, in talking about policy they feel inhibited," says Capito. "That give-and-take between the pages and members is the essential part of the page program."
Indeed, Hall, the former page, hopes that others are privy to the inside access that he received. "The page program is going to grow, and it's going to grow in a lot of different ways," says Hall. "I'm thrilled that the tradition was never thrown away."
with reporting by Katie Rooney/Washington