The Page Protection Act: The Path to Saving A Historic Program

October 5, 2006 Thursday

Immortalized in movies such as “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” Congressional pages always have represented the youthful idealism of the country. Perhaps it is that very image that attracts people like former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), who resigned after admitting he sent improper e-mails to a House page.

For those of us who served as pages, our greatest concern is not with Members like Foley (who likely will be brought to account), but with the future of this unique institution. Whatever we learn about these allegations, one thing should be clear: The system failed, yet again, to protect pages from the Members they serve. It is time to pass a Page Protection Act that creates an independent body to oversee, maintain and protect the page service.

It is time to be blunt. The greatest threat to pages have been the Members themselves. The young, uniformed pages are open invitations for pedophiliac or predatorial lawmakers – a small number, but a population that dates back at least two decades. In a place controlled by partisan alliances and raw power, a deviant Member can operate for years with little threat of detection or deterrence. The only time real attention is paid to the page service is when one of the pages ends up in the news as a victim. Thus, in the 1980s, when then-Reps. Dan Crane (R-Ill.) and Gerry Studds (D-Mass.) were found to have had affairs with pages, Members suddenly responded to a public outcry for reform.

If Congress is motivated to stop these periodic scandals, it should enact a Page Protection Act that includes four needed changes.

First, we should scrap the House and Senate page boards and create a single Congressional Page Board.

Following the Crane-Studds scandal, the current House Page Board was established, consisting of “two Members from the Majority party selected by the Speaker, one Member from the Minority party selected by the Minority Leader, the Clerk of the House and the Sergeant-at-Arms of the House.” There are two obvious problems with the board: 1) dominant control by the majority party for a task that should be entirely apolitical, and 2) the only two non-Members on the board ultimately depend on the majority for their jobs.

At a minimum, board members have an appearance of a conflict of interest when dealing with scandals that could embarrass their party, particularly in a closely divided House before an election. Moreover, with members serving on oversight and appropriation committees, the House Page Board can be a relatively low priority when important votes are pending or budgets are in play. Finally, it is extremely difficult for a teenage page to go to a Member of Congress and accuse a colleague of that lawmaker of improper conduct.

(The Senate avoided some of these problems by creating a board composed of only the Secretary of the Senate and the Sergeant-at-Arms. However, both of them ultimately are dependent on the Senate for their jobs and the board lacks both clout with Senators and camaraderie with the pages themselves.)

To resolve this problem, the current structure should be replaced by a single board primarily composed of former pages, but it also could include a Member of Congress from each party from each chamber. The fact is that the greatest resource and protection for the page academy can be found in its alumni. Former pages now hold positions of considerable power throughout the legal, business and media worlds. These are individuals who are neither intimidated by nor particularly concerned with individual Members of Congress. More importantly, it is far easier for pages to speak with former pages than Members of Congress or a Sergeant-at-Arms.

Second, the board should be given offices in both chambers with a small staff to oversee the page academy and page service. These offices also would be a point of contact for families in an emergency, as well as a resource for educational and cultural events for the pages.

Third, the board should have the ability to conduct its own initial investigations of allegations and have the ability to refer such matters to the appropriate ethics committee or, when presented with evidence of a crime, to the Justice Department. In the former case, the House or Senate ethics committees would be required to investigate and issue an initial report on any such allegation to the Speaker and Minority Leader (or the Senate Majority and Minority Leaders) within 10 days.

Fourth, we should create a United States Page Foundation that would be supported by federal and private funds. This foundation eventually could become entirely self-supporting and offer financial and other forms of support for current and former pages.

With such a system, we finally could create a lasting structure for the page service as it enters its third century of existence. Congress has few traditions or institutions as old or as redeeming as the pages. Crooks such as former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) and (allegedly) Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) always have worked these halls, but so have the pages – young idealists who understand better than they what Congress means to this nation. For those of us disgusted with the current hypocrisy and corruption in Congress, the pages represent one of the few unsullied institutions remaining on Capitol Hill.

Before the 109th Congress departs, it is possible to achieve a final redeeming moment out of a scandal-laden session. It is time to create a United States Page Foundation and a Congressional Page Board to guarantee that this unique institution can flourish, undaunted and unmolested, for another two centuries.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University and served as a House page in 1977 and 1978.