WASHINGTON – After nearly 200 years, the House page program that allowed high school students to serve as messengers and learn about Congress is ending, rendered obsolete by the Internet and email in cost-cutting times.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Monday that the $5 million annual expense can no longer be justified when messages and other materials are delivered electronically. The blue-jacketed pages, who have been a common sight in the House since the 1820s, now have little to do, according to the two leaders.
The program, which also has been touched by scandal, will end by Aug. 31.
Before the Internet and personal electronic devices, pages "crisscrossed the congressional complex each day delivering countless messages and documents to members, committees and leadership offices," the two leaders said in a letter to House members — delivered via email.
Two studies begun in 2008 found that while the young aides were once "stretched to the limit delivering large numbers of urgently needed documents and other packages," they now are "rarely called upon for such deliveries, as most documents are now transmitted electronically."
Today, the pages "are severely underutilized," the letter said.
Boehner and Pelosi wrote that while they are "mindful of the special place their unique experience holds in the memories of the young Americans privileged to serve as pages over the years, our decision to close the program reflects two current realities: Changes in technology have obviated the need for most page services, and the program's high costs are difficult to justify, especially in light of diminished benefits to the House."
While the page program usually functioned as a government learning experience, it had its share of occasional headline-grabbing scandals.
In 1983, the House censured Republican Dan Crane of Illinois and Democrat Gerry Studds of Massachusetts for sexual relationships with pages; Crane with a young woman and Studds with a young man.
More recently, in 2006, Republican Mark Foley of Florida resigned in disgrace after it was learned he had sexually suggestive email communications with former male pages.
After the Foley case, the House overhauled the board that supervised pages, including giving both parties an equal say in overseeing the program. The Republican chairman of the board during the Foley scandal had failed to notify other board members of Foley's questionable emails. The board also was expanded to include a former page and the parent of a page.
The pages have their own school, with a regular faculty, and live in a dormitory near the Capitol. A study calculated the per-page cost for a two-semester school year at $69,000-$80,000 annually, depending on the size of each semester's class.
Applicants must have a 3.0 average in core subjects. They wear black uniforms and must have a hairstyle that is "appropriate for a business environment." They earn $1,804 a month.
Rep. John Dingell, the longest serving House member, was a page for five years from 1936 to 1941, while his father was a congressman.
"It's very sad," said the Michigan Democrat, who began his tenure in December 1955. "There have been some scandals, but you'd be amazed how they've blossomed. Most kids get a great deal of good out of it. It taught me about government and gave me a real knowledge of what happens in the House. It gave me an appreciation of public service."
Dingell said four of his page friends were killed in World War II.
Jerry Papazian, president of the Capitol Page Alumni Association, said he was "stunned and saddened" when he received an email Monday from House Speaker John Boehner's office announcing the end of the program. Papazian was a House page in 1971 and 1972, working on the House floor.
"Nixon was president, it was just before Watergate. We were observing history first-hand," said Papazian, who is now managing director of a management consulting firm in Rolling Hills Estates, Calif. "It was one of the most profound experiences of my life."
He said the alumni association is preparing for a reunion of pages from the House, Senate and Supreme Court next spring. The Supreme Court ended its page program in the 1970s, Papazian said.
The Senate page program will continue.
Associated Press writer Stephen Ohlemacher contributed to this report.