Bob Dornan Live, on 'Free' Taxpayer TV
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.Skip to next paragraph
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"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.