The House’s first week back from recess yielded no lack of excitement, with a major presidential address and the first meeting of a super committee on deficit reduction.
But there was something missing.
Last week marked the first time that the House convened without pages, the teenagers who helped transport messages and hoist flags.
“We miss them,” House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said, though he noted he supports the decision to end the program. “They added a certain degree of excitement and freshness to this stale institution.”
The Senate page program remains intact. Those youths, beaming in their sharp blue blazers and khaki slacks, marched two by two into the House chamber Thursday to hear President Barack Obama speak. But there were no peers from the House to greet them.
Vacant was the space in the back of the chamber where the high school juniors — clad in gray pants to differentiate them from their Senate counterparts — would have swooned over sharing a room with a president.
“Think about how many people actually get a chance to even walk on that floor,” Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said Friday. “Let alone be part of the process, let alone be able to sit in when the president of the United States speaks, when foreign dignitaries speak, to meet Members. We’re very sad that after all these years they’re gone.”
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) decided during the August recess to eliminate the page program, an austerity move designed to save about $5 million per year.
Despite recognizing the dire fiscal conditions that sparked the decision, senior Members were wistful Friday, struck with the realization that a part of the institution had disappeared.
“There was sort of a dimension of familiness,” Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) said, “and the next generation and passing the baton, because you knew each and every 16-year-old who put in two or three months here was changed for the better forever.”
Tasks that had been carried out by the young squires now fall to others. The ceremonial raising of the flag over the House when the chamber is in session has been taken over by Capitol Police officers — an unenviable task in last week’s torrential rain. The responsibility was not alien to them though; officers have been called on to hoist the Stars and Stripes when page school was not in session.
Rep. Dale Kildee (Mich.), an 18-term Democrat who has chaired the House Page Board for the past few years, said he felt the change most when sending for copies and adding items to the Congressional Record.
“Now each office has to send their own staff Member, maybe an intern or maybe the newest member on staff,” he said. “There hasn’t been any significant disruption to the process, but there have been conveniences that have been removed.”
But cries about inconvenience or forsaken tradition were lost on some House freshmen, who were swept into office last year on campaign pledges to reduce the federal budget.
“Other than seeing those very sweet smiling faces lined up in the back, there has been no functional change in what we’re doing,” said first-term Rep. Nan Hayworth (R-N.Y.). “It’s something that had great charm in the current era, but charm has to yield to fiscal necessity.”
Nonetheless, the desire to revive the program is as bipartisan as the decision to end it. Rep. Allen West said he would have preferred to make budget cuts elsewhere.
“I have a freshman in high school, my daughter, and I was really thinking about how nice it would be for her to come up here and get this experience,” the Florida Republican said. “I think maybe sometime down the road we should reconsider it.”
Kingston, Cummings and 24-term Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) also said they would like to see the decision reconsidered.
“All the Speaker has to do is rescind the order,” Conyers said Friday. “One piece of paper, one note from him would start it back up.”