House Speaker John Boehner and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi announced this week that they will be shuttering the congressional page program, an initiative that brings high school students to Capitol Hill to work alongside elected officials, later in the month.
The decision is a historic mistake and brings to an untimely end a nearly two-century-old American tradition.
Ever since the country’s founding, when young boys worked as “messengers” in the First Continental Congress, America’s youth have played a role in the legislative process as “pages” and have had a chance to see the operations of the world’s greatest democracy up close.
Yet the decision to axe the program seems to have been made without consulting most members of Congress, many of whom have long cherished the program’s value and its unique place in American history.
Instead, the weak rationale used to kick America’s young people out of the legislative process was formulated by two private consulting firms, which counseled Boehner and Pelosi that the program was no longer needed, in part due to “advances in technology” that have made having pages in the U.S. House less essential.
The same simplistic logic could be used to conclude that, in an age of Skype and Twitter, members of Congress themselves need not come all the way to Washington to cast their votes.
But this misses the mark entirely, as the page program is not about a critical need for high school slave labor on the House floor that the BlackBerry has somehow made outdated. The role of “messenger” died with the advent of the telegraph.
Rather, the program has endured for 200 years because it exposes the next generation to American government in a way that cannot be replicated elsewhere — and inspires them to become leaders and public servants while they are still impressionable.
Its success in doing so speaks for itself. Some of America’s best and brightest owe their start to the program, and many have gone on to become senior White House officials, senators, congressmen and governors. Even Microsoft founder Bill Gates was a congressional page.
Perhaps realizing the tenuousness of the “technology” argument, congressional leaders also cited the program’s $5 million annual cost as a reason for its cancellation.
America is in a difficult fiscal environment — there is no doubt — and it must eliminate wasteful, duplicative and bloated government spending.
But the page program is none of the above, and its valuable legacy has been enough to convince Congress to spare it from austerity measures in the past.
To put its price tag into context, the program accounts for a measly 0.001% of what Congress decided to spend this year on the legislative branch alone. That’s not even a blip on the budget radar screen, particularly when you consider the history and merits of having pages.
In fact, the government spends more than twice that amount each year buying iPods for federal employees. Surely we care more about educating future generations on the democratic process than we do about connecting bureaucrats with iTunes.
Boehner and Pelosi should hold off on their decision and give members of Congress a chance to devise a plan to keep the program alive.
If they don’t, the death of the page program will not just mark the end of a cherished and valuable American tradition. It will also mean the disappearance of a powerful symbol from the House floor — one that reminds members of Congress to leave the country in better shape for those who will inherit it.
Miles Taylor is a former congressional page. He served as a White House appointee in the George W. Bush administration and is co-founder and senior editor at the political opinion website Partisans.org.