By John Fritze, The Baltimore Sun
5:48 PM PDT, August 20, 2011
Donald F. Munson grew up around politics, but it wasn't until he became a congressional page in the early 1950s that he decided to make a career of it.
The Washington County Republican, who served 36 years in the Maryland General Assembly, met Gerald R. Ford when Ford was a rookie congressman and walked the same halls as John F. Kennedy, then the junior senator from Massachusetts.
He was on the floor of the House of Representatives on March 1, 1954, when Puerto Rican nationalists opened fire on lawmakers from the gallery, injuring five.
For a 16-year-old boy from Hagerstown, witnessing history up close was life-changing.
"There was no question that when I got out of there I was hooked," said Munson, 73. "I wanted to be in public life."
The opportunity for today's high school students to follow Munson's path has drawn to a close. House Speaker John A. Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi announced this month that they are shutting down the 184-year-old House page program.
In a joint statement, the leaders said the $5 million annual cost was too much to continue paying in an era when smart phones and email have rendered the pages' traditional paper-running role unnecessary.
The program ends Aug. 31. A similar program will continue in the Senate.
The House program, formally established in 1827, first enlisted poor and orphaned boys from Washington to run errands for members of Congress.
Today, pages — both male and female — live in a residence hall on Capitol Hill that was built in 2001, attend classes at the Library of Congress and earn $1,804 a month.
Wearing trademark navy jackets, they have been a fixture throughout the Capitol and its adjacent office buildings.
Pages were "once stretched to the limit delivering large numbers of documents ... [but] are today rarely called upon for such services, since most documents are now transmitted electronically," the House leaders said in their statement.
At an annual cost of $69,000 to $80,000 per page, they said, the program had become more costly than "most expensive boarding schools."
In addition to the rising price tag, the page program has been slammed over the years by scandals.
Rep. Mark Foley, a Florida Republican, resigned in 2006 after reports that he sent sexually suggestive emails and instant messages to pages over the course of a decade. Rep. Gerry Studds, a Massachusetts Democrat, was censured by the House in 1983 after he acknowledged having an affair with a 17-year-old male page. Studds was re-elected six times after the censure.
Munson, whose parents were active in politics, spent his page days from 1953 to 1955 answering phones in the Republican cloakroom.
He and other pages read Mickey Spillane novels in their spare time. They also discovered a way onto the roof of the Capitol and would sneak up to "run around and enjoy the sights of Washington."
Munson was standing just under the visitors' gallery in 1954 when the four Puerto Rican nationalists began firing down on the floor.
Five lawmakers, including Democratic Rep. George H. Fallon of Baltimore, were injured in the attack.
One page, Munson said, leaned over to pick up a paper just before the shooting began. When he stood up, he found a bullet hole where his head had been seconds before.
Another page in the chamber that day was Paul E. Kanjorski, who went on to serve in the House for 26 years as a Democrat from Pennsylvania.
"I just stopped," Munson said. "It was unclear what happened almost until it was over."
John David Kromkowski became a page in 1979 when his family moved to Maryland from South Bend, Ind.
Kromkowski also came from a political family — his grandfather held elected county offices in Indiana from 1962 to 1982.
Though not directly involved in politics, the Baltimore lawyer has maintained a keen interest — and enough of an expertise in ethnic politics to work occasionally as an informal political consultant.
On Capitol Hill, he spent much of his time as a "runner," ferrying documents from one office to another.
"I basically walked — except for a half-hour for lunch — from 8:30 until 6:30, every day," said Kromkowski, who is now 49. "I had to have my shoes resoled at least three times."
Pages attend the president's State of the Union speech every year. Kromkowski remembers being in the House chamber when President Jimmy Carter used his 1980 address to unveil the "Carter Doctrine," in which the administration asserted its right to use military force to protect U.S. interests in the Middle East.
But he said his most rewarding experiences came serendipitously, after he broke his leg trying out for the page basketball team.
The injury made running through the halls impossible, so he was able to spend more time on the floor getting to know lawmakers. He was assigned to the office of Indiana Democrat John Brademas, where he had more meaningful work, such as answering letters.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, the Maryland Democrat who served in the House when Kromkowski was a page, would note years later that she knew him when he was a "page boy," he said.
It is those experiences that supporters say make the program worth fighting for. After Boehner, an Ohio Republican, and Pelosi, a California Democrat, announced that the program was ending, several groups began rallying to save it.
Carlos DeLaTorre, a junior at Georgetown University who served as a page in 2008, created the House Page Network and is pushing members of Congress to sign a letter in support of the program.
Jerry Papazian, president of the Capitol Page Alumni Association, said his group is exploring the possibility of a modified page school that might be funded in part from private sources.
Advocates for the program have a deep and bipartisan bench of alumni on which to draw for support. Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Democratic Rep. John Dingell of Michigan and Republican Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi all served as House pages.
"The cost can be addressed, and there's plenty of work for the pages to do," Papazian said.
Since 1982, the program has been managed by a bipartisan board made up of two lawmakers from each party, the clerk of the House, the House sergeant at arms and two members of the public. The board was not included in the decision to end the program, however, which the leaders said they reached after reviewing a report from independent consultants. That report has not been made public.
Abby Shriver, a 16-year-old rising junior at Westminster High School, said she kept busy as a page this summer. Shriver, who was sponsored by Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Western Maryland Republican, started classes at 7:30 a.m. each day and headed to the Capitol 90 minutes later.
In addition to delivering U.S. flags and documents to offices, she was assigned to work as a documentarian page. That meant she was seated at the rostrum in the House and was responsible for operating the electronic bell system, heard throughout the Capitol, to call lawmakers to the floor for votes.
That's where she was on Aug. 1, the last day of the most recent House session, when lawmakers passed the down-to-the-wire legislation to raise the nation's debt ceiling to avoid the potential default of U.S. obligations.
She watched as Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona Democrat who was shot in the head in January, made her unexpected return to the chamber for the vote.
It was an emotional moment that brought lawmakers of both parties together after weeks of bitter political wrangling.
"It's really sad to think we were the last ones who got to experience being on the House floor and being a House page," said Shriver. "I think it changed my views a lot. … The main thing for me was just watching everybody and seeing how problems were solved."
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