WASHINGTON — IT'S almost midnight on the floor of the House of Representatives, and California Rep. Robert Dornan (R) is talking about his family's hair color.
"Out of my five children, four are freckle-faced redheads," he tells an audience of 435 empty chairs. "I have my first freckle-faced redhead in a ninth grandchild, Liam, who is staying with me this week."
This may seem strange to people who expect their representatives to address the grand issues of the day. But it's no surprise to fans of "special orders."
Each evening, after the House has concluded its scheduled business and the chamber has emptied, members are allotted time to speak (or digress) on any subject from Bosnia to the Menendez Brothers. Some, like Mr. Dornan, find such free access to C-Span's television audience hard to resist.
Some, however, do not.
At a constituent's request, freshman Rep. Lynn Rivers, a Michigan Democrat, estimated how much one hour-long special-orders speech costs taxpayers. Her conclusion: about $7,000.
In the name of reform, Representative Rivers introduced a bill that would require members to pay for their special-orders speechifying. If considered, it will indicate just how far Congress is willing to go to debunk its spendthrift image.
"It's not my goal to deprive anyone of a forum," Rivers insists. "But people in my district want us to be accountable for the resources of Congress we use."
On a typical night, about 20 lawmakers request to speak during special orders. Most ask for five-minute slots, but others, who gain permission from party leaders, speak for a full hour. Before new rules were brokered in 1994, the sessions ran as late as 2 a.m. Now they are automatically cut off at midnight.
Yet this year, Rivers says, special-orders time has increased. Expenses like overtime pay for Capitol staff, utility bills, and extra pages in the Congressional Record, she says, could cost taxpayers up to $2 million.
If Rivers's bill passes, special orders would join a list of congressional freebies eliminated this year, from photography to at-cost American flags.
But to some prolific speechmeisters, special orders is no mere perk. Dornan, a former combat pilot who is running for president, takes the floor almost every night. His penchant for digressions and outrageous statements have made him one of the most quotable, and controversial, members of Congress.
In a Nov. 30 speech about military policies, for example, Dornan called President Clinton a "triple-draft evader," and accused him of trying to renounce his citizenship during the Vietnam War.
In the same speech, Dornan discussed the brutality of Ho Chi Minh, described a Halloween parade in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., invoked the movie "Gone With the Wind," pointed out Mr. Clinton's habit of biting his lower lip during official ceremonies, and explained why John Wayne never saw combat in World War II.
This particular hour-long speech required six pages in the Congressional Record. With a printing cost of $466 a page, the speech consumed $3,026 in newsprint alone.
"I have had a few people call [my office] saying tell the congressman to shut up. This will probably trigger a few more," Dornan said during the same speech. "Don't waste your time."
Indeed, Dornan does not show any willingness to yield on special orders. Not only is it a great tool for minority members to attack the majority, he says, but it's also a function of free speech that transcends dollars. "Free speech has always cost a lot of money," he argues, "It has also cost blood."
Soon after cameras were installed in Congress in 1981, for example, a mop-topped young congressman from Georgia named Newt Gingrich began using special orders to attack the ethics of House Democrats.
In a famous attempt to frustrate Mr. Gingrich, former Democratic Speaker Tip O'Neill ordered C-Span's cameras to pan the chamber during special orders to show viewers it was empty. Last year, the camera rule was repealed, in part, because it led some viewers to conclude that members of Congress never show up for work.
Although nobody knows how many people tune in to special orders, it is available, via C-Span, in 69 million homes. Robin Scullin, a C-Span spokeswoman, says viewer reaction is mixed.
Last month, when Georgia Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D) used special-orders time to discuss congressional redistricting, Ms. Scullin says, calls and letters from Ms. Mckinney's district poured in, carrying messages like "hooray for C-Span."
But just as often, she adds, viewers take umbrage. "Do you have to show these special orders?" asked one recent caller. "It's so infuriating. Right now Dornan, [Indiana Rep.] Dan Burton, and some others are going on and on, lying about President Clinton, and there is no one there to challenge them."
Indeed, Charles Cook, a political analyst, warns that special orders produces too much "unfiltered information." Often, he notes, groups of like-minded members, particularly GOP freshmen, engage in hour-long dialogues that, to the uninitiated, look like genuine floor debates. Only rarely do members from the opposing party offer a rebuttal.
Nevertheless, Rivers's bill faces some tough hurdles. Some Republicans say it's a political ploy designed to limit the effects of a medium they have mastered. In addition, lawmakers from Western states argue that the bill discriminates against them, because they rely on special orders to communicate with their distant constituents.
Rivers insists her bill is not partisan, noting that one of her co-sponsors, Oregon Rep. Jim Bunn, is a Republican. Neither is her bill unprecedented, she says. In the last Congress, Mississippi Rep. Gene Taylor (D) proposed moving special orders to a smaller room.
Whatever happens, Rivers can count on the unequivocal support of one group: Capitol staff. During special orders, two stenographers, three clerks, several pages, about a dozen police, four engineers, and a TV camera operator must stand by. Most do not qualify for overtime.
"Strictly off the record," jokes one Capitol employee, "Sometimes I wish I had a gag."