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A multigenerational cadre of former House pages gathered Friday on Capitol Hill, intent on convincing lawmakers to reinstate the 200-year-old program that Democratic and Republican leadership shuttered in August.
Technological advances have rendered the pages redundant and ending the program for high school juniors would save $5 million annually, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said when they announced their decision.
But page program alumni wonder whether there were other motivations. They argue that the program was relatively inexpensive and that Pelosi noted a manpower gap last week, when she announced a Democratic Cloakroom internship initiative that launches in October.
"Technological advances and cost seem to be only part of the rationale for making their decision to end the program," said Carlos DeLaTorre, a former page leading the lobbying effort for legislation introduced by Democratic Reps. Dan Boren (Okla.) and John Dingell (Mich.) that would task a committee with reviving the program.
Ken Archer and other former pages on the Hill on Friday said they believe Pelosi and Boehner had other concerns in mind — namely that the high school juniors were becoming a liability.
"It definitely seems to me that the real reason they stopped the program was to avoid scandals," he said.
The page program erupted in controversy in 2006, when then-Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) resigned following revelations that he had engaged in sexually explicit online correspondence with male House pages. Then, in 2008, the House inspector general found the program needed to significantly improve its supervision of adult personnel at the residence halls. The investigation was launched after four pages were expelled in 2007, two for shoplifting and two for allegedly engaging in sexual acts in the dorm elevator.
After these incidents, Democratic and Republican leadership began to formally review the program and consider whether it was worth keeping, according to a former member of the House Page Oversight Board who was closely involved in discussions surrounding the program's future.
"I have no doubt in my mind that if it had not been for the elevator situation, everything would have been fine and dandy," said the former board member, who is also a former page. "As long as everyone could have sat back and not seen any problems since the Foley scandal, it would have been OK."
A consulting firm also produced a report on the program, but few outside the leadership ranks have seen it.
"I am certainly going to ask to see that report," said Boren, a former page. "If it's just a question of money, we can come up with that money, through foundations and grants and that sort of thing."
In the meantime, former pages say it must be difficult to maintain smooth day-to-day operations in the House with fewer bodies on hand to run errands and mail, fly flags, deliver messages to lawmakers and ring the bells for votes.
It makes sense that Pelosi would start a program to put interns back in the Democratic Cloakroom, said Georgetown University sophomore Gabriela Perla, who worked in the Cloakroom as a page in 2009.
"It must be awful there now," she said Friday, recalling how hectic things could get during votes on the House floor.
Salley Wood, the communications director for the House Administration Committee who also handles press for the Office of the Clerk, said no one has been hired to replace the pages, though it is being considered.
The Democratic internship initiative will borrow college-age interns from Members' offices for six-week rotations, keeping the Cloakroom staffed at no extra cost.
But a Pelosi spokesman emphasized that, above all, it would be a chance to give "young people ... an opportunity to learn and participate in the daily operations of the House."
Friday's lobbying efforts were focused not on challenging senior Members of Congress to justify their decision to close the program, but to urge them to take any steps possible to bring it back in a way that would be beneficial to high school students in particular.
"Though [Pelosi's] plan is a positive first step, it's obviously not everything that we would like the program to be," Boren said.