Paging all parents

Posted: Dec 17, 2006 12:00 AM
Paging all parents

Our liberties have not been safe in Washington for quite some time. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that neither are our children.

By dollars and body counts, the congressional page program does not tally up as the most critical issue facing our nation or the world. But after the initial scandal and ouster of Mark Foley, insult got heaped over the injury by last week’s bipartisan House Ethics report.

This august body of representatives found no reason to penalize anyone in Congress for looking the other way.

And so Congress continues to set the worst possible example.

It is not the repugnant behavior of one man, Congressman Mark Foley, that is most frightening. It is the reaction of virtually everyone, save arguably a few staffers, to play politics first, second and always, and to never care one whit about the lives of the kids who had been entrusted to them.

Of course, there are sexual predators everywhere. But in most places, in most settings, one would expect more from those who are charged with the responsibility of protecting these young people. One would actually expect them to put the interest of the youth’s safety ahead of the predators’ position, and ahead of possible political ramifications.

The Politics of Impression
The comments of former pages speak volumes about the environment that has been created in our nation’s capitol, about the reality of children being protected. “I’m surprised they aren’t doing anything,” offered one, “but it’s not shocking, given the lack of real accountability we’ve seen in Congress in general.”

Another page, who after leaving the program, was propositioned by Foley, summed it up succinctly: “My fear is that by not holding anyone accountable it sets a precedent that political fallout is more important than young people’s safety.”

Sorta does, doesn’t it? This is the real education our young people are receiving.

No doubt, many will suggest that the new Democratic Congress will do better. But there’s certainly no evidence to support their hope.

Congressmen in both parties treated the Foley situation as just another political football. Republicans hid the truth; Democrats sought headlines for political advantage, not justice. As the Washington Post editorialized, “The committee found that the e-mails were treated — by operatives on both sides — as a political issue, not as one of moral responsibility.”

Moreover, this was indeed a bipartisan ethics committee report. The ranking Democrat on the committee, Howard Berman of California, stood with his fellow Republican careerists to protest urgently: “This is not the jerry-rigged result of a series of compromises.”

Oh, no. Of course not. How could anyone even suggest such a thing?

Déjà Vu All Over Again
Let’s note, too, that this sick, sad state of affairs is anything but new. Remember the congressional page scandal of 1983?

Daniel Crane, a Republican from Illinois, had sex with a 17-year old female page. Without the character to resign, Crane apologized, asked forgiveness and campaigned to stay in office.

Gerry Studds, a Democrat from Massachusetts, had sex with a 17-year old male page. He also gave alcohol to a minor. He did not apologize. And Studds was found to have propositioned other male pages, both 16 and 17-years of age.

Both men were censured by the House, but not expelled. Crane was thankfully sent packing at the polls in 1984. But Studds was re-elected and served in the House another 13 years.

The lesson was unmistakable: Power in Washington is unaccountable to the people, even when the behavior brought into question is repulsive and, in part, illegal.

Congressmen at that time took what their press releases no doubt exclaimed to be bold action. They established a Page Board made up of three lawmakers, the House clerk and the sergeant at arms to watch over the program for these young pages.

But the just-released House Ethics Committee report found that the board didn’t regularly meet and was kept in the dark about the Foley matter by Rep. John Shimkus, the board’s chair.

Now comes new Speaker Nancy Pelosi. She says she’ll reform the Page School program. First, she’s going to require regular meetings of the Page Board.

Yes, the board should meet! Brilliant! That’s precisely the thing to do!

And, if I may be so bold to suggest: at the meeting, they should speak to each other. Yes! Reform is really taking off, no?

Pelosi will also add a parent of a current and former page to the board. This makes some sense. But are we really supposed to believe that this new board -- comprised overwhelmingly of members of Congress and their employees, with two parents, who are not physically on the scene, thrown in -- will control wayward congressmen any better than before?

If there are not ever any consequences for predatory behavior, nor for despicably covering up such behavior, nor for exploiting the disgusting situation for political gain - all at the expense of protecting young people, which is your moral responsibility - it seems a tad too little, too late. "The Page School is a national treasure, and the young people who attend it and work in the Congress are our special trust," Pelosi said recently. "We must do all we can to protect them."

If she’s serious, she’ll listen to Rep. Ray LaHood. After the Foley scandal broke, the Illinois Republican was roundly criticized for saying that the present page program should be ended, that minors ought not be working with members of Congress. But LaHood happens to be right. The program was dangerous 20 years ago and it is dangerous today.

It’s a terribly sad truth. But true nonetheless.