Thursday, October 5, 2006

A key ally of Rep. J. Dennis Hastert said yesterday that the House speaker should temporarily shut down the congressional page program in light of reports of former Rep. Mark Foley’s sexually explicit messages to former teenage pages.

Young assistants known as congressional pages have been running errands on Capitol Hill for more than 150 years.

“I think we need to take some serious looks at this and try to come up with a program for the 21st century,” said Rep. Ray LaHood, Illinois Republican. “When you have a page that’s approached by a member of Congress through e-mails in a very salacious way, that’s a serious problem. If that was my child, I’d want them to come home.”

Mr. Foley, Florida Republican, abruptly resigned Friday after ABC reported about overly friendly e-mails and more lurid instant messages that he had sent to teenage boys serving as pages. With Mr. Foley now in a rehabilitation facility seeking treatment for alcoholism, House Republican leaders have scrambled to deal with the scandal’s aftermath.

Under the prestigious page program, about 100 high school juniors from all over the country serve as House and Senate pages at any given time, delivering documents, running errands for lawmakers and helping with day-to-day operations of each chamber, according to the Congressional Research Service. There are 63 House pages, 45 nominated by Republicans and 18 nominated by Democrats, according to the Committee on House Administration.

Mr. LaHood said that the current group of youngsters should be sent home and that the program should be evaluated by outside scholars, who then would recommend changes to leaders. Mr. LaHood said he shared his idea with Mr. Hastert’s chief of staff over the weekend and with about 100 Republican House members in a conference call discussion of the scandal.

Mr. Hastert, Illinois Republican, hasn’t responded to the suggestion, Mr. LaHood said. Some members said they would consider suspending the program, he added.

Salley Collins, a spokeswoman for the Committee on House Administration, which oversees the House’s Office of the Clerk and the page program, said there are strict security policies for the high school students involved in the program.

The students attend school on Capitol Hill every weekday starting at 6:45 a.m. and then report for duty at the Capitol. They have a 10 p.m. curfew and must take another student along whenever they leave their supervised dormitory building near the Capitol.

The students are given an orientation briefing during which they review codes of conduct, program rules and general sexual harassment policy, both among the students and with people outside the program, Miss Collins said.

“Students are encouraged to report anything that’s inappropriate,” she said.

The House page program is supervised by an advisory board led by Rep. John Shimkus, Illinois Republican.

Mr. Hastert has called for federal and state investigations of Mr. Foley’s conduct. The House ethics panel is set to meet today on the matter.

Although Mr. Hastert has been criticized for his handling of the scandal, Mr. LaHood said yesterday that “the speaker has the unanimous support of our conference.” But, he added, the scandal is “a big political mess for us.”

Mr. Shimkus’ office didn’t return calls, but the lawmaker said Monday that the page program in recent years has tightened security and supervision of the youngsters and instituted new travel and notification policies after the September 11 terrorist attacks. He said he met with the House pages last week to assure them that “we are committed to their safety and protection.”

Leaders set up a toll-free telephone number for current and former pages to report any concerns. Mr. Hastert said, “We obviously need to do more, including providing assistance to these kids after they return home.”

Mr. Shimkus and Mr. Hastert said the program was a valuable part of the Capitol Hill institution. Sen. Daniel Webster appointed the first Senate page in 1829, according to the Congressional Research Service, and the Senate has 30 pages. House pages began their service in 1842.

The program was the subject of a scandal in the early 1980s when two House members were punished for sexual involvement with pages.

Current and former pages have defended the program in the wake of the Foley scandal.

“It was completely surreal,” said Adam Estes, 22, who served as a page in 2000 and 2001 and was sponsored by Rep. John J. “Jimmy” Duncan Jr., Tennessee Republican. “I learned about the politicians of America by actually having lunch with them.”

• This story is based in part on wire service reports.

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