A GROUP OF House Democratic leaders has decided to try to limit the "special orders" procedure. Technically, the group may succeed, but politically, it is a losing battle. Special orders are the procedures by which, after the conclusion of a day's legislative business, House members can take the floor and speak to a perhaps empty chamber but also to several hundred thousand C-SPAN viewers around the country. For years the chief user of special orders was Rep. Henry B. Gonzalez (D-Texas). In the past 18 months it has been a band of rebel Republicans led by Reps. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, Vin Weber of Minnesota and Robert Walker of Pennsylvania.
It's no secret that they've gotten the Democrats furious. After the Republicans in special orders last spring attacked a whole host of Democrats for their foreign policy, Speaker O'Neill took to the floor to attack them -- in terms which themselves violated House rules. Now the Democrats have a different, seemingly evenhanded approach. Cut special orders to two hours, and divide the time evenly between the two parties.
They have the votes to pass it. But if they do, they're going to be sorry. The Republicans will lambaste them day in and day out, and hosts of C-SPAN viewers will start writing their local Democratic congressman asking him why he has done such a terrible thing as stifle debate. The way for the Democrats to handle this problem is not to try to tame the medium, but to master it. The Republicans dominate special orders not because they're natural TV performers (neither Mr. Weber nor Mr. Walker nor probably even Mr. Gingrich could get the job hosting a TV game show that Bob Forehead sought); they dominate them because they take care to have something to say and they say it. The Democrats could play the same game. They might even win, sinc there are more of them and -- they think -- they're more articulate. Anyway, one battle they're not going to win is a battle over a gag rule.