There is a magical feeling when you step onto the blue floor of the United States Senate. You are quickly overcome by how small it is. You feel like you are part of history. When the Senate gavels into session and you see Senator Carl Levin argue with Senator John McCain, you have experiences that you will never forget. I know this because last summer, I had the privilege of being a page for Senator Jeff Bingaman. It was an experience I will never forget.
And so it comes with great sadness that I heard the news of the end of the House page program. In my opinion, Congress is making a terrible mistake.
As a Senate page, I saw first-hand how our government works. There is no better way to understand or study the Senate than to live it. We sat on the Senate floor, day in and day out, listening to speeches about healthcare, energy, Wall Street reform, and unemployment benefits, in any random order.
One of my favorites moment from the Page Program came on July 21st of last summer around 7:30 at night when the Senate was in the middle of five procedural motions. I was standing up on the rostrum next to the presiding officer in my navy blue suite, white shirt, and navy blue tie checking off the names of the senators as they came onto the floor and voted. I was next to a telephone with a direct line to Senate staffers outside the chamber who called at least once a minute to figure out which senator had voted and which one had not. Pages were running all across the Capitol trying to get senators on the floor for the vote and assisting the floor staff with operating the Senate.
At the end of my thirteen-and-a-half hour day, I wrote in my journal, "I had a really important role in making the U.S. Senate run." This kind of access and experience for both House and Senate pages is unparalleled and provides a working knowledge of the U.S. government that even the best courses cannot teach.
One of my colleagues on the Do Something Youth Advisory Council, Alex Pommier, was a House page the spring of his junior year and wrote in an e-mail to me this Monday, "The House Page Program allowed me to realize at an early age that most of our nation's leaders are well-intentioned, caring individuals who are working tirelessly to serve and better our country."
He continued, "I had the incredible opportunity to see our nation's leaders at work without the bias of the media. It inspired my peers and I to seek futures in public service."
What also made the program special was the people of different backgrounds who served as Senate pages. This diversity led to intense political debates when we were off the floor. After my fifth day at the page program, I wrote in my journal:
In the spirit of youth we had some awesome debates today on the issues that really matter. Intense discussions about the future of our country and about issues like the war in Afghanistan and American politics and the future of the Democratic and Republican parties. We held more lively debate than those on the floor of the Senate and often had to quiet down. We are all working on making sure to have lots of discussions as we have all found that we rarely find people who can actually talk politics in a coherent manner and make sense.
What I wrote over a year ago is still true -- the Senate Page Program was one of the few experiences in my life where I have found such smart and enthusiastic young people to talk politics with.
There is no way to replace the connections that both House and Senate pages make to each other and to the U.S. government. Yet look at the press release issued this Monday by Speaker Boehner and Leader Pelosi as they cancelled the page program, "Citing advances in technology that have reduced the need for services traditionally provided by congressional pages" and because the program was too expensive.
What Speaker Boehner and Leader Pelosi failed to take into account is the impact the page program has on the pages themselves, the love for government that was fostered in our nation's youth and the debates that were had bridging the partisanship of Washington. I couldn't agree more with Alex Pommier in saying, "That education is worth much more than $5 million dollars a year."
The Washington Times did report that, Speaker Boehner and Leader Pelosi "promised to try to find a way for high school students to get involved with the work of Congress."
I wanted to hear more about what this might look like. I called Leader Pelosi's press office, who said they wouldn't be able to get anything to me by the end of the day. Their response was better than Speaker Boehner's office, who I gave up on after 30 minutes on hold.
If that is going to be their experience for high school students involved in the work of Congress, then I am worried. I can only hope that that the Senate Page Program continues to bring youth inside the halls of Washington and transform their lives much like the House Page Program did.
Follow Alex Wirth on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@amaliowirth