History of Congressional Debate

Chronicling Structural Change and Trends

The first Student Congress events were held by Pi Kappa Delta and the National Speech & Debate Association (NSDA) in 1938, and while this school year we march toward the 77th anniversary of that founding, it’s a great time to pause and reflect on its evolution. For its first 40 years — about half its lifespan — Congress did not experience many changes. It was considered more of a participatory than competitive event, with student voting determining excellence in legislating. As the event grew, each chamber was its own entity and conferred its own awards, without any kind of elimination round, which is why in historical chronicles of the event, you will sometimes see multiple names lists as “outstanding legislators.”

Over the years, as all other speech and debate events became more competitive at the NSDA National Tournament, Congress earned a reputation as merely a consolation event, a “back door” into nationals. In most states, it was offered only at national qualifying tournaments. In the late 1970s, Davenport, Iowa coach Harold Keller became upset with the lack of attention Congress was receiving at the National Tournament, and was subsequently appointed director of the National Congress, as well as winning a seat on the NSDA Board of Directors. During Keller’s tenure as “Mr. Congress,” he built the stature of the event tremendously. Today, we have come to expect most tournaments to have — at minimum — final rounds, and he created this concept of a “Super Congress” that brought together the best delegates from multiple preliminary chambers. When the event grew to the point of warranting a semifinal level of advancement, the “super” terminology was officially dropped in favor of “semifinals” and “finals,” although many coaches still refer to the old nomenclature, out of habit.

Keller also developed the “Base System” (not to be confused with today’s understanding of “base” — more on that later). Base was an elegant, if often misunderstood, tabulation method that recognized points earned for individual speeches as well as each hour of presiding, and factored that raw point total against a mathematical “base level” of participation in a particular chamber. This helped keep pace for frequency of participation over sessions, against quality of speaking and/or presiding. The base level was determined when each student in the chamber had an equal opportunity to speak equivalent to the number of speeches already given in that chamber, with an adjustment for participation added for the presiding officer. Students who spoke more often than the base level had their speech points normed (averaged) against the base factor, but students who spoke less often than the base level were factored against the number of times they spoke, resulting in much lower scores. This is why the concept of precedence for speaker recognition was created — to ensure students were guaranteed the opportunity to speak within the Base System. This is also why at Base System tournaments, precedence did not reset from session to session. At the time, recency was considered optional, and that tended to reset from session to session.

As sophisticated as the Base System was, it became rife with problems. The more rules present in a competition, the more potential there is for strategy, to game the system. As Congress evolved to become more competitive, students became obsessed with where their chamber was on the base, and the amount of debate on legislation became more preoccupied with base than on debate. Tournament officials would make announcements at opening meetings that “base was simply a tabulation method, and students should not pay it any mind during their debate,” but that did not stop them. What’s worse, as Congress began to be offered at invitational tournaments, and state association competitions, those that adopted the Base System lacked the full mathematical understanding of how it was calculated, and implemented it to varying degrees of accuracy. Some states even created their own modifications of the formula, attempting to simplify it, but only amplifying students’ preoccupation with it during debate. Perhaps the biggest problem with the Base System, however, is that it did not allow judges to take students’ in-round conduct into account when evaluating them. Every other speech and debate event has a tool for this: lowering rank, or awarding a loss, but such a tool was absent in the Base System. Today, only the Ohio High School Speech League continues to use the Base System.

I once remarked that Mr. Keller’s design of the Base System was to interscholastic Congress what Robert’s Rules of Order are to parliamentary procedure. Mr. Keller’s brain worked very much like the civil engineer and Civil War general who published the first edition of his rules a century prior to Mr. Keller’s involvement with the NSDA. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to communicate a sophisticated mathematical protocol, and when coupled with the proliferation of Congressional Debate to local and interstate competitive circuits, in an increasingly networked world of instantaneous gratification, the Base System’s shortcomings eventually outweighed the paradoxes between quality and quantity of participation, as well as speaking versus presiding, which Mr. Keller sought to solve.

Mr. Keller also had a very specific philosophy about competitive protocols for Congress. He felt that in the democratic spirit of the event, Congress should be allowed to develop in its own way in each state, rather than have a centralized set of standards. He felt this created a divergent of styles at the National Tournament. However, as information became more readily available online about different states and rules versus the national rules (which are more consistent in the other speech and debate events), this seemed to breed more confusion. What’s more, this was at a time before most states included Congress as an official state tournament event, so it really was still seen only as a national qualifying event.

Until 2007, each NSDA district could have its own protocols for how to qualify students to nationals in Congress, even though every other speech and debate event had very specific protocols that had to be followed. Congress results also were not subject to audit, since there was no consistent protocol in place for an auditor to understand. In 2006, a committee of Harold Keller (IA), Walter Farwell (WY), Dixie (Waldo) Forcht (TX), Sandra Maguire (CA), and Lisa Miller (FL) reviewed NSDA rules for district qualifying tournaments, and created a set of 24 iterations for how districts could run their qualifiers. Their intention was noble: to bridge the gap between a total lack of regulation and some regularity. Unfortunately, the new rules seemed more complex than the IRS tax code, and many NSDA districts either did not follow those rules, or arbitrarily picked the iteration that seemed most straightforward. My hometown Southern Wisconsin district tried at least three of the iterations while those options were available.

In 2007, I was personally tasked with chairing a committee with Jane Boyd (TX), Lisa Miller (FL), and Andrew West (NC) to revise the handbook and make it more user-friendly. A year later, I left coaching to work at the NSDA headquarters, where I witnessed, first-hand, just how confused district chairs were, even with the revised handbook at their disposal. After all, even a more straightforward description of a complex tax code is still a complex tax code.

So, in 2009, I was again asked to chair a committee, comprised of the same members of the 2007 committee, with the addition of Pam McComas (KS) and David Yastremski (NJ). The task we were charged with was monumental: bring more consistency and simplicity to Congress! We first established a mission statement to guide our process and decision-making. We then spent a day just reviewing all of the various approaches to running Congress tournaments, and weighing the pros and cons of each. As part of our investigations and brainstorming, we pulled in longtime coaches from various parts of the country not represented on the committee. We even asked questions of Rex Buffington, executive director of the Stennis Center for Public Service Leadership, national sponsor of Congressional Debate. Part of our recommendations involved renaming the event “Congressional Debate” to reflect what students do (we cited Robert’s Rules, which references floor debate), and to avoid confusion with student government or student council organizations within schools. We also devised the universal rank-tabulation method, which has become the standard at most tournaments today; as well as the student-voted Leadership Award, also in use at some tournaments. Reaction among NSDA constituency was varied, but surveys revealed an interesting paradox. Many districts wanted to retain student voting to determine who advances to nationals, but they also wanted whatever was done at the district tournament to mirror the national tournament. Yet, many felt uncomfortable with a student vote determining who won a college scholarship at nationals. So, as a compromise, districts were allowed to keep a student vote if they desired. As an aside, the national headquarters received many complaints from coaches in the minority in some of these districts, feeling the district committees were comprised of coaches who were the “haves” — considering the number of NFL members and degrees determines voting for those committees — and they felt like the disenfranchised “have-nots.”

During that same committee meeting in 2009, we devised the concept of direct questioning, based on a provision in Robert’s Rules that allows for a direct exchange between the floor speaker and other delegates, provided it is initially moderated by the chair, and provided for in the standing rules. Many tournaments have piloted this, and I have heard overwhelming praise from even the most traditionalist coaches who feel it has enhanced the degree of clash and accountability students have in the event. Many others have said it’s a great protocol, but should be reserved for elimination rounds. The committee’s full report was 20 pages (which included specific re-wording for rules, as well as rationale to justify each proposal), and so the NSDA Board in considering the massive overhaul, wisely decided to hold off on implementing such a different approach to questioning, although more than five years later, one may argue it is time to consider this well-piloted protocol.

One other consideration made by the committee, but not implemented, was the concept of four-minute speeches. As I have traveled the country and talked to countless coaches and alumni of the activity, the reception to this idea has been more chilly than embracing. The intention behind it is certainly sound, even if the reality is less so. The idea is that in four minutes, students could develop their arguments to greater depth. The problem is that the reality is different. Rather than developing deeper analysis of the same number of arguments that would have populated a three-minute speech, students simply cram an additional argument into a four-minute speech. The only exception I have seen is in the final round of a high-caliber tournament, where some students do rise to the occasion of deeper analysis. There are additional, serious side effects to four-minute speeches; namely, the impacts on tournament logistics. Four-minute speeches would require smaller chambers or additional time for debate. This would require more judges, more rooms, or make what are already grueling round timeframes for judges even longer. Plus, a side effect of more arguments per speech would be a faster exhaustion of arguments among fewer speakers in a chamber, meaning rehash would happen sooner, and newer students could be discouraged after they’ve worked hard on arguments, only to be locked out by debate ending sooner than it used to. Finally, and most alarming to me, is how this concept ignores the key educational benefit of selecting and editing concepts to a concise period of time. Rather than simply replicating a speech structure in Public Forum, let’s celebrate the skill it takes by Congressional Debaters to distill their arguments in just three minutes! Word economy and selection of the best sources goes a long way toward fostering more efficient three-minute speeches.

Beyond NSDA

About 20 years ago, Congress began to grow beyond something simply offered by the NSDA and its warm-up tournament offered by the National Catholic Forensic League. In 1995, the Harvard National Invitational Forensics Tournament added Congress at the behest of University School of Nova Southeastern University (FL) coach Brent Pesola, whose student Ashley Keller, asked for it to be offered. Other multi-state, invitational tournaments began to offer it, as well, including Emory’s Barkley Forum and the Glenbrooks. In 2002, Brent Pesola hosted a “Congress Tournament of Champions” (CTOC) at University School in Fort Lauderdale, FL. In 2005, this event was assimilated within the University of Kentucky’s debate Tournament of Champions (TOC).

Many students and coaches argue that the national circuit has developed its own style, which has arisen as a result of areas where Congress is offered with greater frequency, and whose students travel more often and ascribe to that same style. So much of competition is about “monkey see, monkey do.” I had a strange experience with this once. One of my students, while presiding a final round, said when it was time to begin debating new legislation: “since we have a rolling docket, we’ll now move on to the next legislation.” I later asked her what a “rolling docket” was, and she said she heard another student say it, and thought it sounded cool and official. I first told her what she was referring to was an “agenda,” or “calendar,” since she was referencing the order of business the chamber was debating, and second, I told her that by its very nature, once an agenda is adopted, the chair simply calls up the next item automatically, so there’s no need to qualify that process with a statement. Another aside — a student from a nearby school once asked me why my students and I were so “OCD” about parliamentary procedure. As I began to apologize, fearing the worst, the student retorted, “No! I LOVE it! I wish more students took it more seriously, because your students keep things moving well in sessions, and know how to deal with various situations.”

Speaking of minutiae of parliamentary procedure, I really would like students to use the correct terms of art when voting. It’s “ayes” and “noes.” When I lead workshops, I often use the mnemonic device to help students “face” this issue: “eyes and nose.”

Personally, I always coach students to find their own style, rather than to merely imitate the way they see other students debating. In an event where 15-20 students are weighed among their peers, it’s critical to be memorable (in a good way, of course) to the judges. Uniqueness, not sameness, is an important strategy for students to consider.

One saddening trend I have noticed in the activity is how students are less able to think spontaneously as they did ten years ago. Amendments used to introduce new dynamism in debate, by introducing, essentially, counterplans and permutations of ideas in bills. Now, students’ research is so focused and myopic, they don’t have enough peripheral information to feel confident dealing with an amendment that moves or extends debate in a slightly different direction, with more nuance. Back when only titles of legislation were released ahead of tournaments in many areas, students had to have broader research prepared (much like Extemporaneous Speakers).

Speaker recognition has been one of the most contentious issues in Congressional Debate. As alluded to earlier, precedence — those who have spoken least — was created to ensure that all students had an equal opportunity to be scored on the Base System. Through the years, the trend of using recency — those who spoke earlier — was often employed by presiding officers, but not universally. The 2009 committee proposed a codification of this to reflect what students were doing, and to try to bring more consistency to presiding. The age-old problem that has plagued presiding officers has been how to fairly call on speakers before precedence and are established. For years, such methods as “geography,” or spatial distribution of recognition; “activity,” or using motions and questions as a basis for recognition; and “longest standing” or “standing time,” which considered how long a student had been waiting to speak. Each of these created additional rules for the game, which created a variety of strategies that only disenfranchised or confused students, so the NSDA Board prohibited those protocols, instead, telling presiding officers to randomly select speakers before precedence and recency are established.

Another trend at a number of national circuit tournaments that has aggravated some coaches is the protocol to only allow students the opportunity to speak twice in final rounds. While this has equalized opportunities to speak, it also has created a dynamic wherein students are hesitant to give authorship speeches, and where students jockey to speak last to the point where no one seeks to speak for the several speeches leading up to the last speech! Unfortunately, this has evolved due to a lack of a proper approach to ranking by judges. One of the best explanations I have ever heard for judging Congressional Debate was given by Dr. Alexandra Vigars (NC), who went through the specific different types of speeches on an item of legislation. She explicates for judges the value of the sponsorship speech: to lay the foundation for the affirmative position, as well as to justify the need for the particular policy advocated by the bill. The first negative constructs the negative position, debunking any need for change (that the status quo is better than alternatives or not broken at all), and that the policy itself is flawed. Subsequent speeches further extend/rebut or attack/refute, with later speeches beginning to group like arguments, summarize the position, and weigh the affirmative versus negative advocacy against each other (crystallizing). While crystallizing is often seen by debaters as the apex of debate on an issue, the other speeches are important, and the full spectrum of debate on a bill cannot happen without them. Just as considering a presiding officer among speakers in a round is like comparing apples and oranges, comparing speeches early or late in debate on a particular bill is like comparing McIntosh, Honeycrisp, Delicious, Granny Smith, and Braeburn apples! This certainly does not make judges’ tasks easier, but if they approach their rank calculus with this understanding, they can consider a “bigger picture” of the contributions legislators make to the livelihood of debate, no matter when or how they are doing so.

What’s more, the dynamism of debate has suffered in other ways as a function of standardizing styles in Congress. At many high-level tournaments, every student in a chamber feels the need to speak on each item of legislation. This is especially problematic for legislation lacking nuance, where students cannot focus on the myriad details of implementation and efficacy. For the students with less capacity, this often results in redundant arguments, or “rehash.” At best, judges get tired of listening to more mundane issues. Some coaches, such as Jay Stubbs (TX), have advocated for limiting debate, by tournament rules, to a particular length of time for each item of legislation. Other coaches have criticized this approach, concerned that it upsets the dynamism established by the complexity of the legislation and the relative quality and self-determination of students in the room. Within competitive culture in some areas, it is seem as taboo to move the previous question if there are students who still wish to speak. The misunderstanding of the purpose of the Previous Question is a whole other pet peeve of mine! This motion exists for the sole purpose of ending debate to proceed to another issue if enough voices (at least a two-thirds majority) feel that adequate discussion has happened. Unfortunately, students also abuse this motion when debate naturally ends, feeling they cannot proceed to voting if they have not yet moved the previous question. This is simply not true! As the presiding officer tracks students seeking recognition to speak affirmatively and negatively, when she sees that the number of students wanes to one, she can say as she recognizes the last speaker, “after this last speech, unless someone stands to speak, I will ask if you are ready for the question.” When the speaker finishes, the presiding officer should pause and say “are you ready for the question?” If no one objects, she can immediately begin taking a counted vote on the legislation itself, which is correct parliamentary form, as well as saving precious time that could amount to an additional speech.

As a collaborative and social activity, Congressional Debate will continue to evolve as students from more areas interact with each other, and share their styles. Bearing this in mind, I issue a challenge to our community of students and coaches: as you encounter new trends, consider the purpose behind a particular practice. Does it exist within the correct purview and spirit of collaborative problem-solving? Does it enhance fairness within the aegis of competition? Does it allow for more dynamic and interactive debate, or does it render it too static and predictable? Alumni of Congressional Debate have gone on to tremendous careers in leadership, contributing to decision-making in a variety of contexts, where they draw upon skills cultivated in this activity. Let us make sure the educational experience we provide is the most practical, correct, and engaging possible!