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.