By The Hill Staff - 01/04/11 10:50 PM EST
Congressional employee Darryl Gonzalez noticed that, among all of the detailed histories of Congress, none went into depth on its page program. So he decided he would be the one to write about congressional pages, who have been around since the legislative body first convened in 1800.
For The Children Who Ran for Congress, Gonzalez unearthed several tidbits about pages, including their once setting up a boxing ring in the Capitol basement, as well as their long-running fight for official housing. He told The Hill the project started as a dissertation for his Ph.D. in education policy and administration.
A guy who used to work in the Republican Cloakroom, Jim Oliver, was the resident expert of pages, and I became acquainted with him. I actually wrote it as a doctoral dissertation, and then I turned it into a book.
Q: You write, “Pages are truly unsung heroes of the American federal government because they have never been recognized with any sort of significant historical treatment.” Why do you think that is?
There’s always something more important to write about. There’s current legislation, there’s topics of the day. And pages always fell by the wayside.
Q: What do you think is the most misunderstood part about the page program?
I think probably the whole program is misunderstood. People aren’t aware of who pages are and what pages do. They have a very long history — they do “important work in Congress.” … If you ask tourists in the Capitol, they’re not going to know who pages are or what pages do or why there are teenagers running around in session.
I think also a misunderstood part is that people would probably think that the kids are sons and daughters of members or are well connected. But, for the most part, pages have been and are just normal kids who have an interest in politics and who have gone out of their way to get an appointment. They’re just good American kids who want to play their part in democracy.
Q: You also write that “change came very slowly to the page system, even when it was obvious that change was needed.” Why?
Congress is a big organization; it’s a big bureaucracy. I think in any bureaucracy, change comes slowly. With new people in charge of committees and majorities changing every two years in the House and shifts in the Senate, I think continuity was disrupted. A report would come out saying, “I think this needs to be changed,” and the people in power would then lose power.
Nobody runs for Congress to be involved in the page program. They want to do things for their district, do things for their constituents. There were just more important things to do, and the pages were always put on the back burner.
Q: The page program’s history includes some pretty serious stuff: drunkenness, sex scandals, drug use and drownings, to name a few. What do you make of this checkered past?
I think if you throw kids from all over the country into an urban setting and pay them a lot of money and don’t provide supervision for them, that’s a formula for a lot of mischief. There are all kinds of temptations. Thankfully now we have much better supervision for them.
Q: Why did administrators have a difficult time finding a place for pages to live?
Depending on the time period we’re talking about, I think people were willing to purchase accommodations for them, but I guess if it wasn’t one thing it was another. In the ’40s, they had the wherewithal — they didn’t have the space or the money because of the war. In the ’50s they didn’t get their act together. The funding for a residence hall was included in the ’60s, but it was mysteriously pulled from the bill.
Q: Why do kids want to be pages?
For however many pages there are, there are many reasons they wanted to be a page.
Tom Davis, a former page and former [GOP] congressman from Virginia, memorized the election results from around the country, every district. He was just interested in politics. And so becoming a page for him, and later becoming a member, was just a natural progression of what he was interested in. So there are a certain number kids like that.
I guess I’ll say they feel a civic responsibility to become involved and try to make America a better place.
Q: For a 16-year-old now, it’s one of the few ways to get involved in the federal level. It’s also a pretty cool experience. They get paid, they live in a residence hall, they live in a big city. How many 16-year-olds can say they did that?
A lot of kids really aren’t interested in politics, but they want to see if they are interested in politics, and so they become pages. They have a curiosity about what [Congress] is.
Q: What do you think is the hardest thing about being a page?
By far, the hours that they work. They work full time, they go to school full time, and they have to keep up with homework, they have to keep up with all the normal things teenagers do. Sleep deprivation has been the regular problem with whatever decade you’re talking about. If there are late-night sessions, they have to be there again when [Congress] reconvenes.
Q: In the past, people said the page system needed to be shut down. What do you think?
From a politician’s point of view, when pages are embarrassing the institution, the easiest solution is to get rid of them. For whatever reason — I think tradition is very strong in Congress — they have hung around for over 200 years, even when it would be easy to get rid of them. Instead, they make some changes and leave them around.
Q: What was the most surprising thing you learned about the page program?
The schooling for pages was very haphazard. It was allowed to operate in the basement of the Capitol for 20 years or so, just as a private business. This guy, Ernest Kendall, just kind of fell into the job just because he knew the chairman of the patronage committee, and Congress was satisfied with that. I would’ve thought that there would’ve been something more formalized or more institutionalized.
Q: What has the page program become today? And what is their daily life like?
Their day-to-day life isn’t too much different from what it was 20, 30, 40 years ago. They do the same types of tasks at work — they file bills for the members, they get water, they run errands, they deliver packages.
I think the biggest change is the level of supervision. The Office of the Secretary in the Senate and the Office of the Clerk in the House provide these kids with housing, and they have an entire program of activities for them on the evenings and the weekends. They keep them busy and make the program more meaningful. They don’t bring them to Washington just to work — they bring them for the totality of the experience, which includes school and the residence hall life.