June 1984
Reporting : Elizabeth Owen

As part of her duties as Page Documentarian, Jennifer Lovett, 16 from Port Huron, Mich., raises the Capitol flag every weekday morning half an hour before Congress convenes. Lovett also operates the quorum and roll-call light and buzzer system on the House floor that summons members to vote.

"One more scandal, and bam!" roared House of Representatives Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill. "The page system is through!" His outburst referred to lurid 1982 charges of sex between teenage House pages and members of Congress. By the time two such cases were discovered, the page system was getting the most radical overhaul in its 200 years of service on Capitol Hill. The changes include a guarded dormitory that the pages must live in, stringent curfews and tougher academic standards. This month 61 House pages complete their first year under the new regime--tired, a little resentful of the discipline and utterly exhilarated by their privileged glimpse of the way federal laws are made. Pages come from all over the U.S., are mostly high school juniors and earn $9,502 during their year of running errands in the Capitol. Governing their off-duty behavior is a 10-page code of conduct that calls for military room inspection, segregation of the sexes after hours and a flat no to beer, drugs and even pets. LIFE was the first publication allowed to observe the pages coping with the tough new system.

Mark Lehman, a 17-year-old page from Chambersburg, Pa, can't stay awake during a 7:30 a.m. class, while Springfield, Mo., native Jennifer Spreitzer, 17, absorbs what knowledge she can at that hour.

Like most pages, Molly McCarthy, 16, from Buffalo, N.Y., spends most of each day scurrying through the marble corridors of the Capitol.

Blisters, Fatigue and Boston Cream Pies

The page system in one form or another is almost as old as the Republic itself. The first page actually named in congressional annals was nine-year-old Grafton Hanson, sponsored in the early 1830s by Senators Daniel Webster and Henry Clay. Older boys became "riding pages" and delivered messages by horse. Back then many pages were orphans or children of poor families whose plight had come to the attention of a congressman. Today any high school student with good grades can apply to his or her representative and having family connections in Washington has been known to help. (The Senate has its own independent system of 30 pages.) A year in Washington is a big plus on a college application, especially with the Ivy League. Sexual equality came to the page system in 1971, when Senator Jacob Javits--who had sponsored the first black page in 1965--brought in the first girl. Now almost half the pages are females. The sex scandal overhaul of the system was supervised by House Page Board chairman Joseph Minish, 67 (Dem.-N.J.). The new order calls for school, work, study and sleep--leaving little time for mischief. A page's day begins before sunrise. Classes, held on the third floor of the Library of Congress, start at 6:45 a.m. At 10 a.m. the pages go to work. Although they rotate among a variety of jobs, most work as messengers. After their first week--which can mean covering between 50 and 75 miles-most pages suffer from blisters and swollen feet. Girls quickly discard high heels in favor of comfortable walking shoes. The workday ends when Congress adjourns--usually in the late afternoon or early evening. Homework and laundry are supposed to fill the time until curfew at 10 p.m. "They purposely take up all our time," says Lee Anna Sellers, 16, from Starkville, Miss., "because they don't want us to be doing anything else."

Luis Zervigon, 16, stuffs and sorts research on upcoming political issues for the representatives and their staffs in the House Document Room.

Phil Danen, 17, Georgie Boge, 16, and Molly McCarthy, 16, relieve a day's tension with a Boston-cream-pie-eating contest. McCarthy won by a nose.

Lee Anna Sellers checks a toe hole.

Sellers (left), Kristen Troup(# 10) and Robin Gary go head-to-head in a dorm room.

Sellers flirts with classmate Tommy Cox.

Chris Tully, 16,from Kearny, N.J., chats with his sponsor, Rep. Joseph Minish.

Proctors make a bed check.

A guard examines a page's bag at move-in time.

A phone call needs quiet.

Curfew and Bed Checks Lead to Late-Night Pranks

Perhaps the most drastic change in the page system is the new dormitory in what used to be the Congressional Hotel. In the past, pages were expected to find their own housing, and they came and went as they pleased. Now at curfew (extended to midnight on weekends) the girls are restricted to the third floor and the boys to the fourth. Elevators are stopped and stairwell doors have high-decibel alarms. Two policemen stand guard in the lobby 24 hours a day, and in the evenings a male and a female proctor stalk the halls looking for strays. Anyone missing at bed check can be called up before the Page Board. Punishment ranges from an eight p.m. weekend curfew for too much late-night noise to expulsion for serious offenses like alcohol or drugs. Two girls were recently grounded for five weekends for sneaking out through the basement and partying all night.

Complained one of the miscreants, "Pages aren't people here. It's a prison." Sometimes the teenagers vent their frustrations on dorm director Lenny Shible, 32. A favorite prank is to create static electricity by scooting along the carpet in stocking feet, then touching the fire alarm box. A whooping siren blasts through the halls, jarring Shible-and everyone else-out of bed. "We're not trying to hurt him," says a page of the disciplinarian dorm director. "He just takes everything so personally." Says Shible, who has sprayed the carpets with Static Guard: "This is an unnatural environment for sixteen-year-olds. It's hard for them to live, work and go to school together like this. They can't get away from it."

An Inside Look at How Things Work

All pages are created equal, but some are more equal than others. The top job this year belongs to Don Asmonga, a 17-year-old from Belle Vernon, Pa., who is House Speaker Tip O'Neill's page. When Asmonga is not escorting the Speaker back and forth between his office, the House floor and press conferences, he answers the phones and does odd jobs. Because many pages have political aspirations, they take pleasure in even mundane legislative tasks. Says Chicagoan Mary Calhoun, 16, "You can't ignore the education we get. I talk to the people who make the laws. They talk to me about how they feel about a bill. How many kids my age have a chance to know someone who has so much power?"

House Speaker page Don Asmonga escorts Tip O'Neill to his office for a press conference.

The 61 House pages, in traditional navy or black with white shirts, assemble on the steps of the Capitol for a group portrait.