Impeachment cellphone ban gives Senate pages a workout

Teens stay busy relaying messages, fetching water, even pouring glasses of milk

Senate pages are getting in their steps this week. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Senate pages are getting in their steps this week. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 22, 2020 at 8:40pm

President Trump’s impeachment trial may be requiring senators to stay seated hour after agonizing hour, but there’s one group getting lots of exercise: Senate pages.

The blue-jacket-clad teens have been running all over the Senate floor, relaying messages between senators and staff, fetching water and even pouring the occasional glass of milk.

If you were to point this out to a page from, say, the 1950s, you’d likely be met with a shrug. After all, these new impeachment trial duties were basically on the daily to-do list of any congressional page.

That is before the Digital Information-Smartphone-Email Era made message-running unnecessary.

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However, trial rules prohibit senators from bringing their phones into the chamber, so they must rely on pages to deliver handwritten notes like they did in the pre-smartphone days.

It’s a new skill set for these kids, and it shows. On Wednesday night, one page tripped on a chamber step before taking a loud tumble. However, she did manage to hang on to the two empty glasses she was carrying while she ducked behind Martin Heinrich’s chair as quiet settled back over the room.

The pages, who usually work to be in the background and blend into the scenery of the Senate, were in the spotlight for a moment Wednesday night. Senators rose to give a standing ovation to the pages, who will be taking their final exams and leaving Capitol Hill soon. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer gave them a farewell to remember, just before 10 p.m. in the the middle of an impeachment trial.

“We wish them well as they head off back to boring, normal high school,” McConnell said.

“It is rare, particularly these days, when 100 senators from both sides of the aisle of every political persuasion get up and give someone a standing ovation. But you deserve it. Thank you for your good work, and we hope you have beautiful and successful lives,” Schumer said.

Sen. Daniel Webster appointed the first Senate page in 1829, and the House page program started in 1842. Program alumni still speak fondly of their time at the Capitol as a formative life experience.

“It was a special designation for a 17-year-old,” one alum from the class of 1979 told Roll Call in May. “Candidly, we were not particularly supervised. It was sort of an honor system, that we would behave. And we didn’t always.”

That lack of supervision had a downside. Sexual impropriety roiled the program in the 1980s. The House Ethics Committee concluded in 1983 that Republican Rep. Dan Crane of Illinois preyed on a 17-year-old female page. The panel also called out Democratic Rep. Gerry Studds of Massachusetts, who targeted a 17-year-old boy.

But after Rep. Mark Foley resigned in 2006 for sending a page lewd messages, it became more difficult to justify the program. The House finally shuttered it in 2011, but the Senate version continues.

Meanwhile, there’s been some movement to revive the House program. Rep. Bobby Rush introduced a measure last year that would reinstate it. Rush said he considers the page program vital because it “fosters bipartisan civic engagement and creates a new generation of leaders.”

Katherine Tully-McManus contributed to this report.