Pages & the Communications Revolution
Technologies have revolutionized the way information is disseminated from the halls of the House of Representatives to constituents in their districts. Read more about electronic technology in the House.More >
By the late twentieth century, the electronic communications revolution changed how the House conducted its legislative business. Eventually, these changes overtook and supplanted the vast majority of the duties long performed by Pages.99
In the wake of the Watergate Crisis, public demands for congressional accountability and openness led to major reforms in House procedures and practices. Among these was the introduction of live television coverage of House debate in March 1979. Television gradually changed the culture of the institution. One of its lasting effects was to change the floor proceedings: as debate became much more structured and routinized, the floor no longer served as the round-the-clock nexus for Members and staff.100
More directly affecting Pages’ primary role as messengers was the shift away from delivering written and phone messages. This transformation occurred throughout American society and in the House it began with the introduction of pagers and fax machines in the 1970s. It accelerated with the use of personal computers in the 1980s and cell phones and the Internet in the 1990s. By the turn of the twenty-first century, the ability to send entire documents or even books electronically or to retrieve such items directly off the Internet drastically reduced the need for messengers.
New security concerns further drove the transition to new technology. In the wake of the anthrax attacks on Capitol Hill in the fall of 2001—just weeks after the September 11 terrorist attacks—reliance on email skyrocketed as new screening procedures constricted postal mail service. This trend only grew as enhanced security measures virtually ended the use of external messengers who once seemed permanent fixtures of the Hill as they routinely biked onto the Capitol campus from federal departments and downtown offices. In 2005, by one estimate, the House received more than 88 million email messages annually. Meanwhile, the use of postal mail and telephone calls fell well below their historical norms.101
In the first years of the twenty-first century, the development of affordable smart phones that combined telecommunications, email, and Web access once again revolutionized how the House did business. In its rules for the 112th Congress (2011–2013) the House for the first time sanctioned the use of electronic devices such as tablet computers on the House Floor. With so many methods of communication now at their disposal, Members and staff no longer relied on Pages to deliver messages or run errands by foot across the Capitol complex.
Technology had always played a role in changing Pages’ duties but the communications revolution that unfolded with dramatic speed at the close of the twentieth century brought many associated with the House to the conclusion that the Pages’ time had passed. Congressional staff noted the transformation that was occurring before their eyes. One described the “absolute sea change” in how information was exchanged between Member offices, committees, the leadership, support staff, and the outside world. “Pages criss-crossed the campus from morning until night in the early days of my career,” recalled one senior staff member, who started working in the House in the 1970s. In those days, he, like many of his counterparts, had Pages run dozens of errands each week: “That’s how you moved things around. They were absolutely essential.” Nearly four decades later, few would contest the fact that the Page experience—to see and directly participate in the legislative process—remained vibrant and inspirational. But few could also argue that Pages remained critical to the orderly and efficient conduct of the House’s business. Late in the program’s existence, Pages frequently outnumbered the available tasks. Often, Page jobs were of a make- work nature: delivering flags flown over the Capitol to Member offices for distribution to constituents, or office filing duties that, increasingly, college-aged interns performed.102
99For an overview of the impact of electronic technology on the House and how the institution has adapted to it, see “Electronic Technology in the House of Representatives,” http://history.house.gov/Exhibitions-and-Publications/Electronic-Technology/House-Technology/.
100For one study of the origins and impact of television in the House, see Ronald Garay, Congressional Television: A Legislative History (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984).
101See, for example, “Electronic Technology in the House: Internet,” http://history.house.gov/ Exhibitions-and-Publications/Electronic-Technology/House-Technology/.
102See, for example, Emma Dumain, “A Year After the House Program Was Ended, Capitol Hill Denizens Notice the Difference,” 10 September 2012, Roll Call: n.p.