One of the best-known traditions on Capitol Hill is the practice of senators signing their wooden desks in the Senate chamber.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) uses the “Henry Clay Desk.” The Senate adopted a resolution ten years ago that requires the senior senator from the Bluegrass State to occupy Clay’s desk. Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH) sits at the desk of Daniel Webster. It’s been used by senators from New Hampshire since the 1930s.
Sen. Roland Burris (D-IL) inherited President Obama’s desk. But over the years, Sens. Tom Carper (D-DE), Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Kent Conrad (D-ND) and Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) also sat there. And they were all preceded at that desk by legends like Sens. Henry Cabot Lodge (R-MA), Robert Taft (R-OH), Robert F. Kennedy (D-NY) and Howard Baker (R-TN).
Slide open the drawers to those desks and you can trace the history of those who served in the Senate and discover who shared those hallowed workspaces. Some carved into the mahogany. Others inked with a Sharpie.
But there’s another unique spot in the Capitol where signatures reveal a lot about Congressional history, too. It’s a far from the spotlight of the Senate chamber. And rather than depicting the autographs of the country’s legislative elite, the names signed here represent perhaps the least powerful set of people work on Capitol Hill.
There’s a non-descript door on the third floor of the Capitol, just beyond a triple elevator bank near the House chamber, Behind that door is a dank, skinny hallway that leads to something that resembles a steel fire escape ladder. An ascent of that ladder takes you up to an attic above the House chamber. There you’ll find a series of narrow corridors that wind past the pulleys and weights that balance the elevators. Miles of ductwork, vents, pipes and telephone cables jut out from the walls and curl around the innards of the Capitol.
Few people ever venture up here. Except for one group that makes this hike twice daily when the House is in session: pages.
Pages are typically high school juniors who descend on Washington to study and run errands around the Capitol. Each is sponsored by a Member of Congress. And in addition, to delivering messages and hauling around copies of the Congressional Record, pages have one more important responsibility. Up above the pipes and furnaces is another ladder that goes to the roof. And every day the House meets, a trio of pages climb to the top of the Capitol and hoist a flag over the House wing of the building. When the House adjourns for the night, the pages return and lower the flag.
These pages aren’t as prominent as the senators who take great pride in signing their desks in the ornate Senate chamber. But just like the senators leaving their marks, hundreds of pages have grabbed a Magic Marker and inscribed their names and words of wisdom on the air conditioning shafts and ducts that snake around the House attic.
Here, in the most-obscure corner of the Capitol, you’ll can discover that “Weston Jones” was a page with Rep. Howard Coble (R-NC) in 2003 and 2004. “Amy K. Jain” of Plano, TX reports that she was a “Summer 1999 Documentarian” page for Rep. Sam Johnson (R-TX). “Ben Chou” of Missouri City, TX paged for former Rep. Nick Lampson (D-TX). “Tom Church” served as a page for Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI).
No one knows what lawmaker “Betsy G. Blount” was assigned to when she hit the Capitol in 1998. But her party affiliation is clear: “Dems Rock,” wrote Blount on a heating shaft.
“Ken Cloniger” sought to balance Blount’s statement. But not until the “Summer of “03.” “I Love the Republican Party,” Cloniger scribbled.
Some signatures are steeped in political history and unveil the climbs and falls of the political leaders who sponsored these pages to journey to Washington. “Suzanne Brangan” was a page for former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) in 2004-05. DeLay resigned as leader in 2005 after a grand jury indicted him for alleged corruption.
“George Morales” signed his name while he was a student at Gordon Tech High School in Chicago. What’s interesting about Morales’ signature is that he was on Capitol Hill in “’93,’94” and was a page for the “Hon. Dan Rostenkowski, Chicago, IL.” Rostenkowski was the chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee and lost re-election in 1994. Rostenkowski was also convicted of mail fraud and sentenced to 17 months in prison. President Clinton pardoned Rostenkowski in 2000.
“Christopher Katsaros” signed in 2002-2003. He was a page for “Rep. Nancy Pelosi, Minority Leader,” several years before Democrats won control of the House and elected her Speaker.
“Kathleen Boland” indicated that she was a page for last Democratic Speaker of the House prior to Pelosi, “Tom Foley” in 1993.
It takes a little more acumen to follow the political lineage of page “Clay Hammock” in 2004. Hammock simply lists that he was a page for “Mr. Janklow, Mr. Trandahl and Ms. Herseth.”
Here’s the breakout: former Rep. Bill Janklow (R-SD) resigned from Congress after his second-degree manslaughter conviction for killing a motorcyclist. Traditionally when a representative resigns, the House Clerk seizes control of the office. The Clerk at the time was Jeff Trandahl. In 2004, Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-SD) succeeded Janklow in that seat when she won a special election. So Hammock was under the jurisdiction of all three.
In 1996, “Jocelyn Henry” didn’t find it important to list her Member of Congress on a brick wall next to a supply of light bulbs. It’s probably an old address, but if you’re trying to track down Jocelyn, you might want to start with “148 Boltwood Dr., NE, Grand Rapids, MI.”
Not all of the signatures belong to former pages. On “05/02/00” a “Justin A. Lord” got into the act. Perhaps while working on some of the fuses and wiring that adorns the House attic. Lord’s inscription identifies himself as an “Electrician’s Apprentice, Local #26, IBEN.”
I’m sure Lord’s colleagues at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers are glad he represented them atop the House chamber.
Over the years, the pages have emblazoned the walls and pipes with art work and pithy quotes. A helmet-worthy Pittsburgh Steelers logo is depicted on vent. In 2001, “Katie C. Roebrick” asked “Why be normal when you can be unique?”
I don’t know who they’re referring to, but apparently “Bryan stinks a little bit.”
It’s important to note that over the years, a number of people who served as pages went on to win election to the House and Senate: Rep. Dan Boren (D-OK), John Dingell (D-MI), Paul Kanjorski (D-PA) and Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), to name a few. Perhaps that’s what “Andrew Breest” of “Fayetteville, GA” had in mind when he informed us that “I’m going to the moon and back. Maybe one day I will return here.”
But I think at least one page may have higher political aspirations than Breest. A 2003 page sponsored by former Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-LA) appears to have thrown his hat into the ring a tad early. In fact I hear he’s already stumping in New Hampshire and Iowa. Jot this name down: “Stephen Whitney for president, 2035.”
Young people should always aim high. But be realistic. I’ve never met Stephen Whitney. But he has a snowball’s chance of being elected president in 2035. There’s no presidential election in 2035. Whitney will have to run in either 2032 or 2036.
When he retired from the Senate earlier this year, former Sen. Wayne Allard (R-CO) refused to sign his desk. “I’m not going to deface government property,” Allard said.
Allard served two terms in the Senate and three in the House. But declining to sign his desk leaves Congress bereft of Allard’s mark. Meantime, the legacy of hundreds of pages who may never serve in Congress lives on. Even if their legacy is just graffiti scrawled on the vents and ducts lining the Congressional attic.
- Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.