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Teen Pages Get Insider View of Capitol Hill

The program, begun in 1829, has weathered scandal and criticism. Young errand-runners often leave with a passion for politics.

October 03, 2006|Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and Nicole Gaouette | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — When Patricia Duran was getting ready to take a coveted spot as a page in the U.S. House of Representatives last summer, some of her friends teased her.

"They said, 'Oh, the only thing we've heard about D.C. is Monica Lewinsky,' " said Duran, 17, now a senior at Abraham Lincoln High School in Los Angeles.

Duran's friends may have joked about the onetime White House intern involved in a sex scandal with President Clinton, but as it turns out, the congressional page program has been plunged into scandal. The revelation that Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) sent sexually explicit messages to at least one underage boy who served as a page led to Foley's resignation on Friday and to an FBI investigation.

But Duran's Washington experience, she said Monday, was a rewarding one that left her with a desire to run for office. That reaction seems typical of the hundreds of young people who have passed through the program.

For more than 175 years, youngsters have worked as messengers and errand-runners on Capitol Hill. The page program has endured cycles of criticism and reform and, in the 1980s, weathered a sex scandal that led to the formal censure of two House lawmakers. Over the years, it has become more structured and academically demanding, while retaining its up-close-and-personal appeal.

Duran said that while working in the Democratic cloakroom -- a members-only inner sanctum for lawmakers just off the House floor -- she got a candid view of the daily routines of politicians. "That's where they eat meals, where they answer phone calls, where they say: 'You vote for my bill, and I'll vote for yours,' " said Duran, who was sponsored by Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles).

"I was behind closed doors, and I got to see it all."

And, Duran said, she saw no inappropriate behavior by lawmakers or pages. What Duran came away with was an appreciation for the intricate workings of democracy.

"So many more people are actually involved in making the whole round-about system work than just politicians," she said.

According to a history of the program by Congressional Quarterly, the first Senate page, 9-year-old Grafton Dulany Hanson, was appointed by Sen. Daniel Webster of Massachusetts in 1829.

For more than 100 years, only boys were allowed to be pages. Republican Sen. Jacob Javits of New York broke the gender barrier by appointing the first female page in 1970 -- she had to wait another year for the full Senate to vote its approval. Five years earlier, Javits had broken the race barrier by appointing the first African American page.

Pages' duties have not changed much from Webster's day. They mainly serve as messengers, shuttling back and forth among congressional offices with papers or American flags that have been flown over the Capitol and are to be mailed out to constituents.

Duran carried messages to House lawmakers on the floor and in the cloakroom, where access is highly restricted. "You get to see yourself on C-SPAN, which is pretty funny," she said.

Pages essentially are political patronage appointees, and the Senate and House each has its own program. At any given time, there are 72 House pages and 30 Senate pages, according to the Congressional Research Service.

The majority party gets to appoint more pages. And although they serve members of the party that sponsored them, pages often room together in the dormitories operated by the program, striking up bipartisan friendships.

To become pages, students must be high school juniors and at least 16 years old. They can be appointed for one or two school semesters or, as in Duran's case, for a summer session. They are paid at a rate that works out to $20,491 a year for Senate pages and $18,817 for House pages.

During the school year, pages go to classes -- starting in the early morning so they can get their schoolwork done before Congress stirs. They work until the House or the Senate adjourns, which can be late at night.

For many years, pages had to arrange for their own lodgings. Now dormitories are provided by Congress and protected by the U.S. Capitol Police. Pages are closely supervised, officials say.

"Our work boss, she would never let anything bad happen to you," said Arielle, a Republican House page from Oregon who served in 2005. She asked that her last name not be used to protect her privacy.

"The [page] program itself is amazing and life-changing, and it is such a great opportunity for young people to see the entire legislative process and exactly how it works," she said. "Before, I wasn't that into politics. But I just loved that whole environment."

The program has had its troubles. In the 1980s, two House members -- Democrat Gerry Studds of Massachusetts and Republican Dan Crane of Illinois -- were censured for having affairs with pages. An ethics investigation found that Studds had a sexual relationship with a male page, and Crane with a female.

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