To an outside observer of Congress, the Page Program might seem a little anachronistic. In an age of BlackBerrys and cell phones and instant messaging, it does seem a little quaint to have fresh-faced teenagers in blue suits scurrying around quietly and respectfully, delivering messages to lawmakers and toting printed bills around.
But that's exactly why it's such a tragedy that the House of Representatives has decided to get rid of the Page Program, which has been around since the First Continental Congress of the 18th century. The program costs about $5 million a year, and both Republican House Speaker John Boehner and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi announced that the pages were no longer necessary.
That is technically true; House members are certainly capable of reading messages on hand-held electronic devices and reaching each other by cell phone. But it is the dehumanization of the operations of the House that have been substantially responsible for the chamber's growing dysfunction. In-person communication may be old fashioned, but it's also critical to finding common ground within a disparate group such as the House. [Check out U.S. News Weekly, now available on iPad.]
The mere presence of the pages forced an aura of civility and gentility. Congress may have modernized along with the rest of the nation, but the endurance of certain traditions—be they the on-floor references to "my good friend from" such-and-such state, or the congressional Page Program—are essential. They remind members of Congress of something very important that many current lawmakers seem to have forgotten: that the institution of the Congress is bigger and more important than any one individual's career, or either party's status. As painful and even hostile as proceedings on the floor can get, there is something comforting and humbling about the knowledge that the democratic institutions of the House and Senate will be around long after we are all gone. And having high school juniors around can have a behavioral impact on adults, as well: it's harder to yell when there's a kid around (unless you're the parent and the kid is misbehaving--but the pages have been showing far better self-control of late than the members).
The program (which, so far, will be continued in the Senate) is also a tremendous opportunity for young people, who get the chance to see democracy in action and develop a respect for an interest in public service. A number of congressmen were themselves once pages. If we want to instill in young people a faith in government and a respect for public service and hard work, why get rid of the Page Program? The young people who are selected as pages are remarkable kids; they get up before dawn to attend school, work all day, and are subject to strict rules involving curfews and Internet use. They are a great pool from which to select our future leaders. How sad that our current leaders chose to abandon them.