There's no need for pages, anyway

Kathryn Lopez

10/11/2006 12:00:00 AM - Kathryn Lopez

The U.S. congressional page program should be history. Not because of disgraced former Republican congressman Mark Foley, nor because of other page-program low points, but simply because it makes no sense to have such a program.

Mind you, I'm all for civics education; it should, in fact, be a top priority in schools. Good citizenship skills begin early. Comedian Jay Leno's "Jaywalking" spots -- where he finds ignorant average Joes and Janes, who can't answer the most benign political questions -- aren't just the stuff of late-night jokes. A recent study ("The Coming Crisis in Citizenship") from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute of 14,000 U.S. college freshmen and seniors found that our kids don't know much about American history.

But civics education doesn't require a congressional page program. To begin with, such a program reaches only a tiny number of kids -- and the chief lesson it teaches them is the less-than-appetizing part of how D.C. works: It's sometimes all about who you know, sometimes a patronage program for the sons and daughters of the well-connected. Kids don't need to learn that lesson quite that early. Kids also don't need to be going to a special school and leaving normal America for the fishbowl of D.C., as much as I respect the importance of that fishbowl and what it accomplishes.

I'm all for encouraging kids to be overachievers, to learn all they can and take opportunities wherever they can get them. But why does a 16-year-old need to be sitting on the House floor during the day? Pols don't need anyone running back and forth for them as much as they once did. There are BlackBerrys now. If I want to get a congressman, I'll shoot him an e-mail; certainly his colleagues can do the same.

As the Associated Press recently described, "Pages are 'gofers' who deliver letters, legislative material, and packages to offices on Capitol Hill. Other duties include staffing the cloakrooms inside House and Senate chambers. There, pages give messages to lawmakers, alert them to votes and answer phones." Does a high-school junior, soon enough to be stuck in the real world with the rest of us, really have to be doing such things? Your congressman and senators have staff that can run errands (and college interns, for that matter). They don't need one of your local high-school kids who should be playing football, singing in glee club, or tutoring in his spare time.

And while it's creepy for a congressman to be crying at a congressional-page farewell speech, as Mark Foley did in 2002 -- it's also a little off, to be completely honest, for a teen to spend his youth on Capitol Hill. It's not natural! Play ball. Read the books you won't have the time to read the rest of your life. Spend time listening to the wisdom of your parents -- you won't have them forever. Get involved at school. Do some volunteer work. There will be time to indulge your political passions -- too much time, even! There will be time to spend on the House or Senate floor if you still think that's your calling in a few years. And you know what? You'll be a richer, deeper person for having spent more time in real America before you head for the Hill -- and the Beltway will be better for having a Renaissance you and not a kid who has wanted to be president since he was 12 and filled his resume accordingly.

Now, don't get me wrong. There are cool, worthwhile, educational aspects to paging. When I was a teen, I didn't page, but I took advantage of some summer programs my parents encouraged me to save up for. I met new friends and met congressmen (who, mercifully, didn't want to be my friends) and all the rest. To this day I recommend the bipartisan Washington Workshops Foundation and the conservative Young America's Foundation to parents, teachers and teenagers who ask for good D.C. opportunities for high-school and college students. But one week of immersion and playing Model Congress instead of watching repeats during July is a whole lot different than spending a semester as needless errand boy. So there are better alternatives out there for the prematurely political teen. We don't need congressional pages; we need kids to page their youth while they still have it.