WASHINGTON – After nearly 200 years, the House is killing the messengers.
Leaders are ending the page program that began in the 1820s, allowing high school students to serve as messengers while getting a behind-the-scenes look at Congress that few Americans ever get.
Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., wrote House members Monday that the Internet and email have left the pages with little to do. Their message — delivered via mail — said the House could no longer justify the $5 million annual expense.
Pages, usually high school juniors, live in their own dorm, have their own school and at times party like — well, like teenagers whose parents are away. The program, which has adult supervision, has nonetheless been touched by a few sex scandals.
But most of the time, the pages could be seen around the Capitol complex with their dark blazers and neatly trimmed hair, running at warp speed when summoned by a member of Congress. They all were smart, needing a minimum 3.0 grade average in core school subjects to get into the program.
The problem, Boehner and Pelosi said, is they now have little to do. The stacks of bills and the packages they carried, the messages transmitted from one lawmaker to another, can all be delivered electronically.
The House program will end by Aug. 31, although the Senate page program will continue.
In 1983, the House censured Republican Rep. Dan Crane of Illinois and Democratic Rep. 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 Rep. Mark Foley of Florida resigned in disgrace after it was learned he had sent sexually suggestive electronic messages to former male pages. That scandal, and the failure of Republican leaders to act after they learned what Foley was doing, helped the Democrats regain the House that year.
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.
One former page, Rep. John Dingell, said "It's very sad" that the program is ending.
Dingell, 85, went on to win election to Congress in 1955, and the Michigan Democrat is now the longest serving member of the House.
His father was in Congress when Dingell became a page at age 12 in 1936, and he was able to stay five years. Four of his best friends as pages were killed in World War II.
"There have been some scandals, but you'd be amazed how they've blossomed," Dingell said. "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."
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," Boehner and Pelosi wrote.
They said that starting in 2008, the first of two studies 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 leaders 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."
The 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.
Jerry Papazian, president of the Capitol Page Alumni Association, said he was "stunned and saddened" when he received an email Monday from 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 firsthand," 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.
Associated Press writer Stephen Ohlemacher contributed to this report.
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