To get onto the roof of the House of Representatives, you open an unlabeled door in an unassuming hallway and climb an ancient metal staircase into a cramped, barely lit crawlspace that is basically the attic of the United States Capitol Building.It is dirty and disused and presumably haunted, like all attics. The walls are covered, ceiling to floor, with the signatures and drawings of former House pages, young men and women—now old men and women, or dead ones—who, like you, once had the unique opportunity, not even open to congressmen themselves, to raise and lower the American flag that flies over the House of Representatives when the body sits in session.
It is very early in the morning or it is very late at night. You are 17 and alone and without adult supervision. You can peer down through metal grating at the empty staircases of the Capitol, graced with portraits of great legislators past. You can pause for a second. You can think.
Raising and lowering the flag on the roof of the House is a privilege that was delegated to participants in the House of Representatives Page Program alone—until today, that is, when John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi announced that the program, a nearly 200-year old tradition, will end on August 31st.
“This decision was not easy, but it is necessary due to the prohibitive cost of the program and advances in technology that have rendered most Page-provided services no longer essential to the smooth functioning of the House,” their statement said.
What the Congressional leaders miss, however, is that the purpose of the program, the valuable return on the comparatively small $5 million annual investment, is not the services rendered by the pages to the House, but by the House to the pages.
Raising the flag over the Capitol; ringing the bells that call representatives to a vote; riding the Senate tram; seeing the president walk down the hallway; filling Barney Frank’s glass of water; handling actual legislation; noticing that Pelosi has shoes of every conceivable colour to match pantsuits of every conceivable colour; seeing Boehner smoke cigarettes on the House floor; slowly making a massive rubber band ball while Jeff Flake complains at length, and at midnight, about legislative pork : these are experiences that tie a young person—that tied this young person—to the day-to-day operation of his government in a way that nothing else can.
The decision to save $5 million—really, a pittance—by cancelling the page program was “based on a cost analysis by an outside consulting firm,” the New York Times reports. That is shameful, as is the leaders’ reference to “advances in technology.” With the benefit of having witnessed the daily operations of Congress firsthand, I can’t help but wonder if Congress itself has been rendered obsolete by such advances. Surely $5 million could have been found elsewhere. Given the benefit of modern technology, would the creators of the American political system have sculpted so unwieldy, so wasteful, so antiquated a legislature as that which we are now stuck with? I doubt it.