WASHINGTON — Bringing the curtain down on a nearly 200-year-old tradition, leaders of the US House of Representatives announced Monday that they were doing away with the chamber’s “page” program.
Republican House Speaker John Boehner and Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi cited the high cost of the program as well as advances in technology that have reduced the need for the teenaged messengers’ services.
“We have great appreciation for the unique role that pages have played in the history and traditions of the House of Representatives. This decision was not easy, but it is necessary,” they said in a joint statement.
“Although the traditional mission of the Page Program has diminished, we will work with members of the House to carry on the tradition of engaging young people in the work of the Congress.”
The lawmakers cited an independent study that highlighted how messages that pages once ferried around the vast US Capitol grounds now zoom among offices electronically and found that the annual cost to operate the program has topped $5 million, not including all expenses tied to the page dormitory and school.
Each page costs between $69,000 and $80,000 per school year to taxpayers — more than the most expensive US boarding schools, as well as most colleges and universities, said the two leaders.
House pages — who roam the halls of the US Congress in their trademark navy blue blazer, grey slacks or skirt, black shoes and necktie — must be at least 16, not more than 17, make good grades and have to be sponsored by a sitting member of the US Congress, according to the program’s website.
The first known instance of boys running errands and delivering messages in the US Congress dates to the 1820s, when three “pages” and eight older “messengers” worked in the Capitol, according to official records.
In modern Congresses, there have been about 70 House pages, each of whom earns a monthly gross salary of $1,804.83, from which taxes and a 35 percent room and board fee are deducted, according to the program’s official website.
The page population also reflected momentous social change in the United States, with Frank Mitchell of Springfield, Illinois becoming in April 1965 the first African American to gain full admittance to the program.
In an August 2008 interview for the House’s Oral History Project, Mitchell noted that he came to Washington amid social strife and the civil rights movement.
“Why my mother let me go or how my mother let me go is incredible to me. I mean, I had difficulty riding my bike across the busy street without her permission,” he said.
Girls permanently joined the program in May 1973 with the arrival of Felda Looper of Heavener, Oklahoma.
“This was a life-changing experience for me,” she told an Oral History Project interviewer in May 2007.
Pages have at times become embroiled in congressional sex scandals, including two in 1983 that saw the lawmakers involved be formally reprimanded by their colleagues for engaging in sexual relationships with teenagers.
And in 2006, Republican Representative Mark Foley resigned after sending sexually suggestive messages to teenaged boys who were former congressional pages.