Numerous concepts and practices can be observed in the United States Congress. These concepts and practices greatly influence how congressmen behave and how public policy is shaped. One such concept frequently used in congress is the use of the Special Order. Over the past few decades the special order has become more prevalent and influential in shaping behavior in congress.
A special order, fundamentally, is a very simple concept. A special order is an opportunity after the House of Representatives has been adjourned for the day for a member to speak on any topic they wish. A member may speak from five minutes up to one hour after official legislation has ended for the day. Special orders are given a four hour long duration limit unless it is a Tuesday. On Tuesdays, special orders may last up until midnight. Since special orders are not part of official legislative work, most are given to an empty room. When giving a special order, a member must follow the rules of the House, the chamber’s precedents, and the Speaker of the House. To make a special order, a member must gain admission from party leadership. Special orders are considered “unanimous consent practices”. Because of this, any member is allowed access and it is very unlikely for anyone to object. Members also have the choice of either giving their special order speech on the House floor or simply having it recorded in the Congressional Record.
The procedure of a special order tends to go as follows: Five minute speeches given by individual members, followed by speeches longer than five minutes given by party leaders or designee, and finally speeches longer than five minutes given by individual members. Members may also ask for permission towards the end of a special order period to make a speech.
Although any member may make use of a special order, the minority party tends to make more use of them. Throughout a typical day of official legislative work, the majority party will utilize most of the time to speak and work on their own agenda. A special order gives the minority party the opportunity to bring attention to their agenda. Special orders also give members the opportunity to debate non-legislative issues.
One major contribution to the influence of special orders is the introduction of new technology, most specifically the creation of C-SPAN. Once C-SPAN put cameras in the House of Representatives, a new opportunity was given to less powerful members. Less powerful members include new members and members of the minority party. When making a special order, a member has the opportunity to speak on television and reach a large audience. Members may use a special order to speak on current policy and bills, speak about national and international affairs, make eulogies and tributes, speak on issues salient to their constituents, and comment on party issues. Many members use this opportunity to speak to their constituents. Since a new member or a member of the minority party may not have to opportunity to speak during the day’s official session, using a special order, they can now reach their constituents on television. Special orders give these less influential members of the house the ability to challenge the majority party and make a name for themselves. This new source of power has given new accountability and transparency to the house. Using special orders, the minority party can voice their opposition to majority party and hold them accountable.
Special orders have gained some controversy in recent decades. They have shown their significance most clearly during the 1980s with congressman Newt Gingrich. At the time, Gingrich was a new and unknown member to the house. He was also a member of the minority, Republican Party. C-SPAN was also new at the time, and the legislative influence of special orders was still relatively unknown. After official legislative work was finished for the day, Gingrich would proceed to make a special order speech. Making these speeches, Gingrich was able to both call attention to the minority Republican agenda and also make criticism of the Democratic majority. Gingrich, who otherwise would not have had the opportunity to debate during the day’s official work due to being a new member belonging to the minority party, had the opportunity to reach a large audience on national television. Controversy soon began to rise from Gingrich’s new technique legislative debate. Regardless of whether he was within proper protocol when making the statements he made, it was clear that he had found a new and effective method of debate.
Included in this report are three videos that provide examples of the effectiveness of special orders. Each one draws attention to a specific aspect of special orders that make them significant in the House of Representatives. The first video shows a video of Newt Gingrich speaking on the effectiveness of special orders. Gingrich explains how by using a special order speech, a member has access to national television. He explains how special orders give a member the opportunity to reach a large audience that they would otherwise never have the ability to reach.
The second video shows an example of a special order given. The representative giving the speech in the video explains the significance of making special orders. He explains how special orders create the opportunity for both sides of the house to work together to shape legislation. Special orders allow a sense of collaboration between both parties that otherwise would not exist. It should also be noted that the representative giving the speech is a member of the minority party. Special orders allow the minority party to give their viewpoint on current legislative issues.
The last video is another example of a special order speech being given. It should be noted that even though the representative giving the special order speech is a member of the majority party, he is a member of the opposing party of the executive at the time. One should also notice that the member speaking at the time is speaking in front of an empty house. This demonstrates that the importance of a special order is not speaking solely to house members, but using television to speak to both house members but also their own constituents.
Special orders have an extreme amount of power and significance in shaping legislation in the House of Representatives. Special orders allow new members and members of the minority party the opportunity to debate on the floor of the house. Through the help of technology, representatives can reach large audiences that they otherwise would never have the ability to accomplish. Representatives can speak on legislation and bills, national and international issues, party leadership, and they can reach their constituents. Special orders create a new accountability and transparency to the House of Representatives. Special orders give the minority party the ability to both criticize and collaborate with the majority party.
Schneider, Judy. CRS Report for Congress. March 30, 2007. www.rules.house.gov/archives/. April 15, 2010