The Page Program, Up Close and Personal

It's fair to say I've learned more about the congressional page program in the past week than I ever did in my previous six months as CBS News' Capitol Hill Correspondent.

The most interesting thing I learned really didn't have anything to do with the case of Congressman Mark Foley, nor his proclivities for getting up close and personal.

It had to do with how the pages feel about their experience years after it's over.

First, though, the abridged background.

The House Page Program has been going since 1842 (though girls weren't allowed until 1971). The kids — high school teens living full-time away from home and their regular schools — basically serve as messengers for members of Congress. But they also attend Page School, on the fourth floor of the Library of Congress, taking classes in math, English, science, politics and language. To get a page position, a student has to be an academic achiever and come with all the right recommendations. The kids get paid about $1178 a month, with $300 automatically deducted to cover cost of a dorm and five dinners a week. Pages used to be as young as 14, but after a sex scandal involving pages and two members of Congress in 1983, rules were tightened. Pages must now be at least 16 (that's the legal age of sexual consent, by the way, in the District of Columbia). Also after 1983 came new curfews, a code of conduct, and a requirement that the kids live in special dorms.

Most of the members of Congress, say the pages, just brush past without much interaction. Maybe that's why when somebody like Congressman Foley pays them attention or gets to know their names, it seems so special. Foley was known for buddying up with the pages on the House floor in the corner where they congregate and wait for assignments. He was always, they say, striking up friendly conversations and social banter. He didn't just want to know what subjects a page liked in school or where he was from; he wondered when their birthdays were, their favorite places to eat and what they liked to do on their time off.

My producers and I ended up speaking to a lot of former pages to find out if they knew anything about Foley or related improprieties. Some suspected; some knew; but most didn't have any idea that there was anything fishy going on. But on another topic, one after another was single-minded in how life-changing, how rich and how special the page experience was. Males and females, whether from a class in 2005 or 1969, sang the same tune.

"When I went to the page program, it was the greatest experience I've ever had in my life," says Saul Spady of Seattle, a House Page from January to June 2006. "It really changed me. It really helped me become an adult and evolve into a better person."

Blake Yocom, a House Page during 2003-04, echoes that sentiment. "It was an amazing experience — probably the best experience of my life so far. Hopefully the program is not damaged in any way by (the Foley) incident. I hope many more teenagers are able to experience the program."

It's difficult for the pages to explain exactly what they find so rewarding about rubbing shoulders with Congressional movers-and-shakers and delivering their messages. Maybe part of it is the access: They are allowed into parts of the Capitol where the public and media are not allowed. They can go onto the House floor, use a Members bathroom, enter the clubby "cloakroom" where members talk and strategize between votes and debates. Maybe part of the allure for pages is the process. While other teens are preoccupied with sports and dating, these youngsters are literally watching a bill become a law — or get blocked — from start to finish. Maybe it's the independence they enjoy that's so special for the pages. After all, they're high school kids pretty much living like college students in dorms away from home.

When you think about it: Put a smart bunch of barely post-pubescent teens together day and night pretty much on their own without parental guidance ... put them shoulder-to-shoulder with powerful members of Congress and their young aides ... make them feel mature and independent and on their own ... and it's surprising there aren't more scandals.

One member of Congress told me he thinks part of the problem is that pages come to Capitol Hill at an impressionable time. He says pages look up to and often come to idolize the Congressmen and Congresswomen they see and work with.

If there is a flaw in the page program, maybe that's it: it provides a captive audience of young minds and bodies to do the bidding of members of Congress that some of them idolize. Not everyone in Congress deserve idolizing.

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    Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.