One day last year, during the Virginia House of Delegates’ annual session, Meredith Diloia found herself hurrying around the chamber conferring with legislators, relaying messages and otherwise doing her part to keep the proceedings moving. After members adjourned for the day, she stopped by the Majority Whip’s office before spending the rest of the afternoon shuttling between delegates’ offices and attending committee meetings. When her work was finally done, it was time to get started on her algebra homework.
That’s because Meredith Diloia isn’t an elected representative, or a legislative aide. She’s a middle school student, as well as a member of a small and dwindling group in American legislatures: a page. Last year Meredith and 39 other Virginia middleschoolers were selected to assist lawmakers in Richmond. These 13- and 14-year-olds commit to work every day of the legislative session -- 45 days in odd years and 60 days in even ones -- for $145 a week and another $125 weekly for meals and incidentals. The pages stay with chaperones at a nearby hotel and spend weekends at home with their families.
This month, as legislators in Virginia and other states convene for the 2015 session, pages across the country will again be returning to state capitols to help out and to learn about the lawmaking process. Several states have legislative page programs, but few are as extensive as Virginia’s. Among the states that have a program, they typically run from a single day up to two weeks. But tighter budgets -- along with the rise of electronic communication, which has made it easier for lawmakers to communicate without passing paper back and forth -- have led many to question the value of state page programs. Even the U.S. House of Representatives shut down its program in 2011, citing costs and a dwindling need for pages. (The U.S. House program also had been a source of scandal, attracting questions about lax oversight.)
Virginia, where the page program dates back at least to 1848, spends about $500,000 a year to run the Senate and House programs. But House Speaker William Howell told a local TV station that it’s money well spent. “Pages are irreplaceable. Receiving a rare glimpse at a young age into Virginia politics, they learn how government works. Many of them have come back either as people working in the legislature or as elected officials. It’s a great program.”
In a recent note to Paul Nardo, clerk of the Virginia House and overseer of the page program, a former page wrote, “Thank you for all the doughnuts, tutorials on how to tie a bow tie, and serving as a great clerk for the House of Delegates. … One of the phrases that you said a couple of times that really stuck with me was, ‘As pages I look at you as a colleague not kids.’ I really appreciated you saying that because as thirteen and fourteen year olds there aren’t a lot of other places that you receive that type of treatment.”