Special orders and one-minute speeches hone parties' discipline

From the crack of dawn until midnight, members are locked in steady debate on the House floor — even when the chamber is completely empty, save for staff and other members waiting their turn.

Special orders and one-minute floor speeches have been a staple of House debate since former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) used them as a member of the minority to hammer the Democratic majority for its perceived ethical improprieties.

Today, both parties’ leadership offices stage and closely monitor these scheduled debates as a way to ensure members stay on message and continue to advance their respective parties’ agendas.

In his tenure as Republican Conference vice chairman, Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), whose office is responsible for organizing and monitoring the speeches for the Republicans, has asked members to focus less on the hometown basketball team during these remarks and more on the GOP message.

“We like to talk about the differences in our philosophy and the Democrats,” Kingston said. “We’ve tried to move it more toward substance, and we’ve tried to get everyone in [the conference] to help out.”

On the Democratic side of the aisle, Rep. Frank Pallone (N.J.) organizes one-minutes and helps Rep. Kendrick Meek (Fla.) rally the conference to do special orders on a constant stream of Democratic messages. Democratic leadership offices then post these speeches on the Web and make them available for iPod users and bloggers throughout the country.

For instance, Democrats have been hammering Republicans recently for the perceived “culture of cronyism,” a message they are trying to sell American voters in the hopes that it will hurt Republicans at the polls next November and Democrats will regain the majority.

“House Democrats are energized, organized and focused, and Americans are responding to our message that Republicans have created a culture of corruption and cronyism at the expense of the American people,” said Jennifer Crider, a spokeswoman for Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

These extended debates are occasionally picked up by local or national news broadcasts, but most are seen only by committed C-SPAN viewers who watch the House floor at all hours of the day and night. That said, a lot of planning goes into making sure lawmakers from both parties show up to spout off one minute worth of verve and defiance.

Pelosi’s office has established its own message shop and puts out daily “Morning Message Points” for Democrats to use on the House floor. The points include a series of legislative items and reasons why, in their view, Republicans are not representing American voters.

Democrats also provide the caucus with updates on ethics investigations and other GOP-related controversies, such as the investigation into whether or not a member of the White House staff leaked the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame.

On the GOP side, David All from Kingston’s office meets with Sean Spicer and Steve Martinko from the conference press shop every morning to settle on two broad themes for the week, such as the Hurricane Katrina recovery effort or the war on terrorism.

Once the themes have been set, All and Norah Bel in Kingston’s office send an e-mail to each Republican press office detailing the themes and listing a speaking schedule for the week. The e-mail also includes a reminder that the conference press office has personalized speeches on file for individual issues if members choose not to write their own.

A member of Kingston’s staff is on the floor to record each member speech and hand out a ready text for any members who do not come prepared. That office then tracks the remarks each week to compare them with the Democrats’ and then crunches the numbers to see how their on-message strategy is shaping up.

For instance, during a 10-week stretch ending on Sept. 22, Republicans were “on message” 70 percent of the time, as compared to 57 percent for Democrats, according to statistics compiled by Kingston’s staff. Although it may sound a tad Orwellian, GOP conference staffers say the tally serves as an internal barometer for Kingston and the conference office to track their message consistency against their counterparts on the other side of the aisle.

Results vary greatly. During the aforementioned 10-week stretch, the number of one-minutes speeches delivered by Republicans varied from 23 a week to 59 a week. The percentage of the speeches that were “on message” varied from a low of 35 percent to a high of 91 percent. Democratic one-minutes were similarly varied, according to the numbers provided by Kingston’s office.

His office also includes these ranking in its weekly “Theme Teamer” mailings. The current leader during the 109th Congress is Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) with 77 one-minute speeches as of the last week in September, followed by Reps. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) with 62, Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) with 57 and Joe Pitts (R-Pa.) with 54.

“It’s one of the opportunities we have as a member of Congress to get our message out,” Price said. “They are one of the few opportunities that members have to recognize a pertinent issue.”

For Wilson, the speeches are a regularly scheduled time for him to make comments on the House floor.

“I can make points that I want to make, and I can make them when I want to make them,” Wilson said.

He occasionally invites representatives from his South Carolina district to the House gallery before delivering a one-minute speech, and he said other members often do the same when they have visitors from their own home districts.

By tracking these seemingly inconsequential remarks, Kingston said, he is hoping to build message discipline within every member of the conference. It is also a chance to heighten the debate between parties when the House is considering controversial legislation, Kingston said.

“It’s just hard-core philosophical pingpong,” Kingston said. “If you get a few one-minutes that are a bit inflammatory, it gets people’s juices flowing.”

Kingston’s primary objective is to get members involved in spreading the message.

“The great thing about one-minutes is that it gives everyone time to speak on the House floor,” Kingston said.

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