Springfield Journal Register

October 6, 2006

LaHood's plan criticized

 

WASHINGTON - For Greg Beard, his experience as a House page in 1988 was a formative one that has had a long-lasting impact on his life.

"It's a fantastic experience," from the lifelong friendships that are made to "the chance to watch history happen," Beard said Thursday.

As a high school kid from Peoria, "it certainly broadened my perspective on everything from my political views to understanding people's different perspectives."

So Beard, 34, an investor in New York City, doesn't understand why Rep. Ray LaHood has proposed terminating the program - at least temporarily - in light of the disclosure of lurid Internet messages to young former pages from former Rep. Mark Foley of Florida.

"What did the page do or what did the program do to warrant calling for abolishment?" asked Beard, who was appointed by retired Rep. Bob Michel, R-Peoria.

He and other congressional page alumni are speaking out to defend the program, established in the 1820s, that hires high school juniors to live, work and study in Washington, instilling in them a deep commitment to public service, according to alumni.

LaHood has called for suspending the program until it can be reviewed, saying Republican leaders needed to take drastic action to assure parents.

"This program is flawed and it should be terminated until we can figure out how to fix it," LaHood said earlier this week, calling it "antiquated."

In Chicago on Thursday, the Peoria Republican stood by his remarks, saying pages are little more than errand runners.

"They're not doing substantial work. They're not doing legislative work," he said. "If we need errands run for us, we can have our staff do it."

However, his proposal isn't gaining much support on Capitol Hill. Several lawmakers and former pages are protesting the idea, saying LaHood's solution is akin to blaming the victim.

Republican Policy Committee Chairman Adam Putnam, R-Fla., called it "crazy talk."

"It sends a message that Congress can't control itself and so we can't be trusted with children," Putnam told the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call.

"This is a complete overreaction to the problem at hand," said Putnam spokesman John Hambel. "My boss thinks it would be a sin to make them pay for the misbehavior of one former member of Congress."

Calls to discontinue the page program also were heard in 1983 when Congress censured former Rep. Daniel Crane, R-Ill., for having sexual relations with a female House page and former Rep. Gerry Studds for having sexual relations with a male page.

"It is the ultimate example of 'shoot the victim,'" said Jonathan Turley, a professor at George Washington University Law School, who was a page sponsored by the late Rep. Sidney Yates, D-Ill., in 1977.

"I'm not so sure why LaHood's logic stops there. We should ban lobbyists from the halls of Congress because the congressmen obviously have as much problem with lobbyists as they do with children," he said.

Turley proposes creation of an independent page governing board, comprised primarily of alumni of the program, that would eliminate the inherent conflict of interest of lawmakers investigating scandals that could affect their own party.

As a page in 1986, Doug Geiss was assigned to the House cloakroom where he had close-up view of then-Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., as he muscled through major revisions of the tax code.

"What it taught me is that politics is not just for the chosen few, and because of that, five years ago, I ended up running for local office," said Geiss, 36, who chairs the Taylor, Mich., city council.

"I just want to express a deep love of the program," he said. "I think it made me a better person."

Congress gets more from pages than pages receive from the experience, Turley said.

"The pages remind members of Congress why they originally went into public service," he said.

Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Ohio, described the page program as a "wonderful experience" for the youths he's sponsored, adding that he's heard no concerns from parents.

Numerous lawmakers are proposing adding protections to the program. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., who serves on the current House Page Board, suggested a peer counseling program.

Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Wilmette, would like to establish a process for investigating misconduct involving minors and include penalties for not immediately reporting evidence of such violations.

Republican Study Committee Chairman Mike Pence of Indiana and Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa., have called for "a zero-tolerance policy" for any inappropriate interaction between members of the House and pages.

Pages now have curfews and 24-hour security in their dorm, which is protected by the U.S. Capitol Police. Beard and Geiss said they always felt safe.

"There are going to be bad people wherever you go, and, I guess, Congress is no exception," Beard said.

 

Copley News Service reporters Paul Krawzak in Washington and Mike Ramsey in Chicago contributed to this report. Dori Meinert can be reached at (202) 737-7686 or dori.meinert@copleydc.com.