End of the Page: Congress Discards Tradition for Touchscreen Democracy

Article excerpt

In the screenplay of the 1939 Frank Capra classic "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" a congressional page leads hero Jimmy Stewart to his desk on the Senate floor. "The page boys are the only real class we have in this place," he tells the new senator about the young men who will later carry in baskets of thousands of telegrams during Mr. Smith's famous filibuster. "The rest are mostly people who come here like they go to the zoo ..."

Before men become political animals, they begin life as pages.

On Capra's silver screen, pages are baby-faced adolescents with choirboy voices, as was often the case during the nearly two centuries that pages have roamed the corridors of Capitol Hill. In recent decades, though, the program had become more regulated, with applicants required to be of driving age and in their junior year of high school. Pages of both sexes lived in proctored dormitories guarded by the Capitol Police and attended class in the morning in the attic of the Library of Congress.

Earlier this year, one side of the Capitol ended the tradition forever. House Speaker John Boehner and minority leader Nancy Pelosi wrote that after an external review by a consulting firm, they had decided the $5 million spent to employ these young men and women could no longer be justified. The pages, once necessary to deliver messages and call members to the phones in the cloakroom, had been made obsolete by technology, they claimed.

Critics were quick to argue that Boehner and Pelosi's explanation was likely a smokescreen for their real motivation: curtailing the sex scandals that had dogged the program in recent years. Members of both parties had been discovered in inappropriate relationships with the deckhands, and with Congress's collective approval rating at all-time lows, the House leadership decided they couldn't afford to have more of their ranks accused of child abuse on government property.

The "prohibitive" cost should not have stopped the program--wealthy alumni offered to pay for it through a foundation, but these offers were rebuffed.

But claims of the program's obsolescence deserve more attention. When Republicans retook the House in 2010, they made a decidedly unconservative change: use of smartphones and other electronic communication devices, once banned, is now permitted on the chamber's floor, provided the devices do not "impair decorum. …