WASHINGTON — House Republicans are bitterly contesting a plan by Democrats to cut short the lengthy, late-night floor speeches, televised on C-SPAN, that have become popular as tools to savage political opponents.
The dispute over "special order" speeches is a clash between the House's Democratic leaders, flush with their party's presidential victory, and minority Republicans who can no longer count on White House support in their battles.
In a recent letter, House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) said the plan to limit the after-hours speeches "represents an outrageous attempt to suppress the voice of the minority party." Democrats outnumber Republicans in the House 268-166.
House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.), to whom Michel addressed the letter, has not yet responded. But in an interview, Foley said that the special order speeches should be continued. "But there needs to be some limits," he said.
The popularity of special-order speechmaking has grown steadily since 1979, when the Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network, known more commonly as C-SPAN, began broadcasting House proceedings to cable-TV viewers across the country. Nearly 60 million households now have access to the programming.
As long as there is a member standing on the floor, C-SPAN will carry his or her remarks, said network senior vice president Susan Swain. "We made a commitment way back when that we would just carry the House without making any decision about what (proceedings) are more newsworthy than others," she said.
According to a study conducted by Stephen E. Frantzich, a professor of political science at the U.S. Naval Academy, the number of special orders in the House more than doubled after the introduction of the television cameras. Members have learned that a late-night speech to an empty chamber can catapult them into the news. A prime example was the lengthy, late-night attacks on Bill Clinton during the presidential campaign by Reps. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove), Randy (Duke) Cunningham (R-San Diego), Duncan Hunter (R-Coronado) and Sam Johnson (R-Tex.).
Their speeches prompted C-SPAN viewers to deluge news organizations with telephone calls and ultimately resulted in a White House meeting between the congressmen and President Bush, whose campaign for a time appropriated the attack strategy.
House Democrats contend that Dornan and other Republicans abused the privilege by making wild charges in the early hours of the morning when few members were present to challenge the accusations.
"There is clearly a . . . demagogic quality to this," said one senior Democratic aide, who asked not to be named. "Members are protected in what they say in debate on the House floor. It can lead to pretty intemperate if not irresponsible language. . . .
"If you limited the time," the aide added, "then you might get people from both sides of the aisle who are prepared to stick around" and answer whatever charges are made.
The restrictions would apply equally to Democrats, the aide noted, including maverick Rep. Henry B. Gonzalez of Texas, who often makes use of the special order format.
But another Democratic aide, who also demanded anonymity, said Republicans see the late-night speeches as their forum. "They have captured the C-SPAN crowd," the aide said. "They see this as their way to communicate."
Several Democrats said the all-night sessions are costly for taxpayers, not because they involve overtime pay for salaried House staff members but because of the approximately $500-a-page expense to record the speeches in the next day's Congressional Record.
Special orders are a tradition in the House. Under rules, a member of either party can request up to an hour to speak on any subject at the close of legislative business.
For instance, if five members of each party request special order time on a given day, the House could stay in session for as long as 10 additional hours, until all have completed their remarks. The only limit is the time set for the House to convene the next day.
According to top congressional aides, Democrats are looking at several plans to restrict late-night speeches. Under one being considered by a Democratic Caucus study committee, special orders would be limited to three hours each day--1 1/2 hours for each party. Another would cut off special orders at a prescribed time, perhaps 10 or 11 p.m., regardless of when the House concludes its regular business.
The Democratic Caucus is to meet next month to consider the rules that will govern the 103rd Congress. Officially, they must be adopted by the entire House after it convenes on Jan. 3. But the Democrats' lopsided majority ensures that rules they endorse will govern the House.
Special orders were also an issue in 1984, when then-Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. of Massachusetts was incensed by Republican special orders that attacked the Democratic leadership. So he ordered the House staffers who remotely operate the House cameras to periodically pan the empty chamber during the addresses, showing viewers that few were present.
That practice continues today.