Sunday, October 01, 2006

Yet Another Political Scandal, with Ickiness

I really don't want to talk about the current scandal on Capitol Hill. It's gross and nasty, in ways that the everyday corruption and stupidity can't touch. But I actually have been a little closer to that scene than most people, and I haven't seen some of these issues raised.

Now, in case you've been living in a convent or simply being smart and not reading the news, there's trouble brewing because a Florida Congressman had some inappropriate contact with at least a couple of different Congressional pages. Many people are drawing analogies to the earlier scandal involving the previous president of the United States and a former White House intern, but those cases are quite different for a number of reasons.

Background on me, first:

I was an intern for two summers in D.C., on Capitol Hill. One of those summers I worked in an office in the building where the pages live. I later worked as a Congressional staffer, including two years working for a member of the House Ethics Committee who was also on the page board. I wasn't directly involved in those matters, but was aware of some of what it entailed.

So, now the point.

A number of sources I'm reading online contend that this is a partisan political issue, specifically that members of the leadership of the majority party may have tried to cover up this scandal to protect the interests of their party. Given that they had knowledge of the matter, withheld that from the one page board member from the minority party, and held onto the information for nearly a year, the notion of coverup is a fairly obvious conclusion. It seems apparent that these actions were politically motivated.

From my perspective that is not only perverted, but also an enormous change in how the House deals with issues regarding its pages.

Pages vs. Interns

A lot of people learned a little bit about interns a few years back during a couple of other scandals, one involving the White House and the other the Congress. People have this notion that young people run off to Washington to work or play or entertain the elected officials or something, but they don't have much clue as to what really goes on.

Interns are generally college students, sometimes recent college graduates. They generally work for free or a small stipend, but for most purposes, they are volunteers. Thousands of these folks descend on Washington throughout the year, but mostly in the summer. As the most junior (and generally very temporary) members of staffs, they are usually assigned to entry-level work, such as opening and answering mail, doing research, and so on. Some get school credit, either for the internship itself or for academic work done along with or in conjunction with their internship. And internships are often in private offices, such as lobbying groups, non-profits, think tanks, and law firms, as well as governmental offices of all sorts.

For purposes of this discussion, I will discuss only Congressional interns.

Pages are something else, altogether. Each house of Congress has a program for pages. Pages are high school students, in their junior years. They commit to spending an entire academic semester or two working as a page, during which time they also attend the page school full time. The job of a page is basically to be helpful to the operations of Congress in exchange for the opportunity to learn about the legislative process up close. In practice, that means messenger work, picking up letters or packages from one office and delivering them to another. A number of pages are generally assigned to the chambers when Congress is in session, to facilitate communication among Members and their offices and committees.

Pages are sponsored by the Members of Congress who represent their homes. Not every district has a page; I don't know that they can have more than one at a time. While participating in the page program, the pages live in a page dorm, which is a secure, chaperoned facility.

So, the short summary of the differences are 1) age: college vs. high school, 2) status: temporary staff vs. sponsored helpers.

The life of an intern is, as you might expect, the life of a college student away from both home and school for a prolonged period. The life of a page is more like that of a kid at boarding school, but with less free time.

In my experience, both interns and pages are very important to the running of Congress. Interns are basically free (or very cheap) labor. They do a lot of the same kinds of things that full-time staff do, but because of the short-term commitment, they have less expertise and less depth. But they are well-integrated parts of the Congressional staff. They report to the office every day, work with the same staffers a lot, and often socialize with the younger staff (who are often not far removed from being college students and/or interns themselves).

Pages, on the other hand, have very little substantive contact with Members or their staffs. They are mostly pretty anonymous; when you call for a page to deliver something, you never know which one will show up, and they are usually only present for a moment or two. The office that sponsors a page might have a little more contact, but nothing as extensive as with an intern.

Members of Congress take very seriously their duty to protect pages. When a Member sponsors a page, that Member takes a degree of personal responsibility for this child of one of their constituents. Many Members have children of their own (some of whom serve as summer pages, in fact). They are keenly aware that these are kids, that they are in the care of Congress in general and of their sponsor in particular. No one wants anything bad to happen to a page. I think it is worth noting that when the harassment originally started, it was the parents of the page who reported it to the sponsoring Congressman, and he took that complaint to the House leadership.

I'm not clear that the Congressman did the proper thing here. I can't see why he went to the political leadership, rather than to the board that oversees the page program or the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct (Sadly, the "ethics committee" doesn't actually do anything much anymore, but an allegation of a Member harassing a page would certainly fall under their jurisdiction.), but I'm getting ahead of myself.

So back in the early 1980s, there was an enormous scandal involving two male Members of the House (one from each party), each with a different page (one male, the other female). Both Members were censured by the House in the summer of 1983 (when I was working as an intern!); one was defeated for re-election the following year; the other served at least five more terms before retiring.

As a result of this tumult, the House put a bit more structure into its long-standing page program. The two most important bits were the creation of a Page Board to oversee the program, and the establishment of the page dorm.

As it turns out, the Congressman I worked for (after my internships) was a member of (and if I recall correctly, chairman of) the Page Board. The board consists of three Members of Congress, the Clerk of the House (basically the administrative head of the House) and the House Sergeant at Arms (the head of security). Its purpose was to make sure there was institutional control over the page program, coordinating the sponsoring Members with the officers of the House.

The page dorm was created to have a single, nearby, secure facility where all the pages would live, providing them with safe surroundings and also removing the need for them to leave the Capitol area. Their home was across the street from the House office buildings.

As it turns out, I worked an internship in the building that contained the page dorm in the summer of 1984, so I know what it was like. It was a converted old hotel. A couple of floors had been dedicated to the page dorm, and the rest was turned into offices. To enter the building at all, one had to pass through a metal detector and show identification to a member of the Capitol Police. After working hours, the building was locked, and one had to be admitted by the Capitol Police. Pages may have had keys, but I rather doubt it.

Access to the page dorm floors was by special card keys. I passed those floors on the way up the stairs to my office. The doors were closed and secured; their access system was different from the rest of the building (my office's floor had an unlocked door to the stairwell, and the office had a regular key lock).

What I'm trying to get across is that even twenty years ago, the House had taken substantial measures to protect pages from outside influences. However, the job of a page requires some contact with Members of Congress. There are areas of the House chamber where pages are designated to stand and wait for requests from Members to take messages or letters. It makes sense that there will be some friendly chats. (I don't know if you've ever been around a Member of Congress, but it is virtually impossible for them to pass by someone without saying hello and shaking hands. It's just the way they work.) They are gregarious people, for the most part, and I believe they sincerely want to make the pages feel welcome. As noted earlier, many of them have children of their own, and realize that these kids who are away from home for a semester or two might need a little friendly contact.

But it appears that now and then, some of these adults violate the trust placed in them, and turn from friendly hosts to harassers or exploiters. And based on my experience back then, no Member felt it was acceptable for another Member to have relations with a page (with the notable exception of one of those censured in 1983, who claimed it was a consensual, adult relationship that had broken no laws). The sponsorship of the student/page, the custodial duties, the trust placed by the parents, the unequal stature of the participants all dictate that such a relationship is inappropriate and unacceptable.

I listened to the censure debate in 1983. It wasn't really a debate. It was more of an affirmation by the House of its custodial responsibilities and a repudiation of the actions of the Members who had transgressed those duties. I cannot recall a single person standing up to defend the actions of the accused Members, but at the same time, I cannot recall any aspect of partisanship or politics entering into it. No one thought to exploit the issue for partisan gain (although it probably helped that there was someone from each party accused).

For members today to have acted as it appears they have, to have stymied investigation into allegations, to have enabled the accused Member to not only stay in office, but to continue to have contact with pages, is inexcusable. To have sacrificed the interests of children placed in their care for political gain is reprehensible.

Maybe my views on this have hardened now that I have a child of my own. A week ago, had someone asked me whether I thought it was OK or "safe" to have their child serve as a page, I would have unhesitatingly said yes, believing that the program was designed to protect those in it. I hope Congress can do something to restore that trust. The page program is a great way for kids to learn, firsthand, what our legislative branch is about. Unfortunately, I fear the current batch of interns is learning all too well whose interests are being looked out for on Capitol Hill.


Laura E. Goodin said...

What I find incomprehensible is this: "Foley, still co-chairman of the Congressional Missing and Exploited Children’s Caucus, attends a signing ceremony at the White House for the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006."

Chard said...

Did I mention the rampant ickiness of this whole matter?