While lawmakers voice shock and disbelief at the sex and drug charges now rocking Capitol Hill, few should have been surprised to see controversy surround the congressional page system.
So far no hard evidence has surfaced to prove charges that young pages and Congress members engaged in drug traffic and homosexual activity. But the House ethics committee Wednesday began its investigation into the controversy. This and other probes are certain to bring to light the conditions of the 100 youngsters, ages 14 to 18, who serve as errand runners.
At hearings six years ago House Doorkeeper James T. Molloy warned members that ''we have a potential time bomb'' with the page system. The high school students, who are largely on their own except when working or attending early morning classes, ''don't have adequate supervision,'' he said.
Now that time bomb has exploded, much to the embarrassment of Congress, just a few months before elections. And while House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D) of Massachusetts says his constituents are more concerned about the economy, clearly the American public is closely watching the scandal.
Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R) of Tennessee, traveling around his home state, found voters quizzing him on the charges. He has repeatedly offered assurances that there is no credible evidence against senators.
Even so, Senator Baker and virtually all of the Hill leadership are calling for a major overhaul of the page system that dates back to the early 1800s.
Pages, who can be as young as 14 in the Senate and 16 in the House, come from all parts of the US, usually for about six months but sometimes for a year or more. For about $8,000 a year, they make deliveries, prepare the legislative chambers for the day, and run errands for lawmakers.
A senator standing at his desk preparing to give a long speech has only to make a quick motion with his hand, and a page darts out the door to bring him a glass of water.
During winter months the teen-agers' day begins at 6:10 a.m. when classes open at the Capitol Page School in the Library of Congress. By 10 a.m. they are at their work posts in the Capitol, where they serve as long as Congress stays in session, usually until 6 p.m.
After work the youngsters are on their own. And that is where the problems begin.
''We hope we worked them hard enough during the day that they can't get into too much mischief,'' says Ann Thornburg, a secretary in the House doorkeeper's office,which serves as a base for the 71 House pages. ''Unfortunately that is not always the case.''
She says that most of the pages behave well, and adds that there have been only a few ''bad apples.'' Earlier this year the House sent three pages home for failing to meet ''standards,'' such as the required grade ''C'' average. Another page, Leroy Williams, who has made sensational charges of drug and homosexual activity among pages and members, also left the program.
House pages are given a two-page list of rules forbidding ''rowdiness,'' alcohol use, or tobacco use, and exhorting them to act in such a way as to ''reflect honorably'' on the House. But it does not enforce those rules.
Outside of work and school hours, the pages are unsupervised. They must find their own housing, with little help from Congress. The House instructs its pages to locate within walking distance of Capitol Hill, and pages are given a list of rooming houses. Then the youngsters are on their own.
Most live on East Capitol Street, lined with Victorian walk-up rooming houses and apartment buildings. A few fortunate youngsters find rooms in places such as ''Mother'' Anne Klopfer's rooming house.
''I tell them no drinking and no wrestling on the beds,'' she says. She houses only boys, and girl pages are not allowed upstairs. She wants her boys home by midnight, mainly because her Capitol Hill neighborhood is unsafe at night, and she says they comply.
But Mrs. Klopfer takes only a few youngsters, and housing for pages widely varies.
At the 1976 hearings, sponsored by the Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education Subcommittee of the House, one apartment manager testified that pages had wrecked furniture, hosted rowdy parties, had drunk alcohol, and rarely studied. The building subsequently refused to admit pages.
Many in Congress say the solution now is to build a page dormitory. Congress voted 12 years ago to build such a facility but has never approved the money to begin construction. Some on Capitol Hill contend that the reason is mainly that some members, who pick pages on a patronage basis, want to keep control of the program decentralized.
Senator Baker is pushing to accept only junior high school students as pages and to house them in a single facility, to simplify the system, which now serves all four high school years. Another proposal, reportedly interesting Speaker O'Neill, is to hire only pages who are high school graduates or older and who would need less supervision.
Still another reform plan, sponsored by Reps. Frank Annunzio and Paul Simon, both Illinois Democrats, would set up a board of House and Senate officers to set policies for pages. Authority over the pages currently is divided up into at least six different offices.
Reformers have tried and failed to change the page system in the past. But the consensus in both parties is that the current scandal, whether it exposes illegal activities or not, will force Congress to act soon.