Student Congress (also known as Congressional Debate) is a form of high school debate in the United States. The National Forensic League and National Catholic Forensic League offer Student Congress as an event, as do many national debate tournaments and State Forensic Associations.
In Student Congress, high school students imitate United States Congresspeople by debating bills and resolutions. Before the event, each school submits 'legislation' to each tournament. After the legislation has been compiled, it is given to each participating team, which then attempts to research as much of the material as possible, with the goal of being able to speak on both sides of every bill. Before tournaments, many Congressional Debate teams practice speaking on the bills together.
At the beginning of the event, groups of students play the roles of Congressional committees, deciding which legislation is to be debated and in what order. Bills are debated through a series of mostly three-minute speeches, alternating between proponency of, and opposition to, a given bill. The speeches are designed to capture the attention of the audience and convince them to vote a certain way on each bill. Judges rank speakers on their logic, organization, and eloquence, usually on a scale from 1 to 6. After the chamber feels that debate on a particular bill has been exhausted, participants vote on the bill.
Many students and debate coaches enjoy the Congressional Debate format because
Critics of the Student Congress format point out that the debate can often sound more like a "symphony" than a clash of ideas, with each side of the debate repeating its points in succession. Ideally, Congressional debates include a large amount of refutation, with each side attempting to discredit the arguments of the other. If this fails to occur, and no new ideas are brought up by speakers, debate can become quite boring.
The typical Congressional Debate speech is three minutes long. Within this time, the speaker must lay out an organized, logical defence of why the chamber should vote for or against a given bill. The general format of a speech is as follows:
While judging a speech is clearly, to a certain extent, subjective, there are certain key standards that most would agree distinguish a good speech from a bad one:
The exact procedure for Congressional Debate varies widely across the country. There is no one "standard" for correct Congressional Debate procedure. However, most Student Congress associations use some variation of the following outline.
Students attending each tournament are divided up into groups of somewhere between ten to thirty (usually around twenty). These groups are called chambers, Houses, or Senates, depending on the region and the tournament (some tournaments include both Houses and Senates).
Time-wise, a tournament is divided into several sessions, each of which are several hours long. If a tournament lasts several days, there is often one session on the first night of debate, followed by several more on the subsequent day.
Each chamber has a Presiding Officer (informally known as "the P.O."). The two main tasks of the Presiding Officer are (1) to enforce parliamentary procedure and (2) to record each speaker's number of speeches and questions. The Presiding Officer is generally a student debater, and is usually elected by the chamber. It is his or her job to ensure that the chamber runs smoothly.
Speeches are ranked by judges, usually adults, who rotate between chambers.
Some styles of debate include a Parliamentarian, an adult who remains with the chamber the entire time and resolves any difficulty with rules or parliamentary procedure that the P.O. cannot handle. Parliamentarians often serve a judging function as well, either ranking speeches like a judge or nominating students for excellent performance in the chamber.
Rounds usually begin with a method for selecting which bills will be debated, and in which order. In some styles of debate, students break up into committees to set an agenda, or "docket," of bills. One popular arrangement of committees is to have three: one for bills related to "Public Welfare", another for "Economics," and a third for "Foreign Affairs." Each committee is headed by a chairperson, usually an experienced debater.
After the docket has been set up, Presiding Officers are voted on, and once one is selected, debate begins.
Congressional Debate uses Robert's Rules of Order, a popular system of parilaimentary procedure. The debate is guided by motions made by students, who rise and say "motion" to get the attention of the P.O. Motions guide the general flow of debate, but the P.O. himself is responsible for acknowledging motions, conducting votes, and generally running the chamber.
Some styles of debate require a motion "to open the chamber for debate," or a "main motion." If committees are not used to set a docket, a motion is made to choose which bill to begin with. To begin debate on a bill is to, "take a bill of the table." "The table" refers to bills which are not currently being debated. Once a student feels that debate on a bill is exhausted, he or she may motion to "lay a bill on the table," which ceases debate on that bill.
Once a bill is taken off the table, the Presiding Officer will either read the bill, or "waive the reading" of the bill in the interest of time. Debate then begins.
The Presiding Officer then announces that a speech in authorship/representation of the bill is now in order. The representative that wrote the bill must give an introductory speech laying out the main arguments for the bill. This speech, unlike any other Congressional Debate speech, may be pre-written. If the author of the bill is not present in the chamber, someone from his or her school gives the authorship speech. If no one from that school is present, a "sponsor" gives a "sponsorship" speech instead.
After the authorship or sponsorship speech, the Presiding Officer calls for a speech in opposition to the bill. Whichever debaters which to speak on the bill stand, or otherwise indicate their desire to speak. How the P.O. chooses speakers varies greatly by region and by level of competition. In general, however, two rules are observed:
At the beginning of each session, when few debaters have spoken, most speakers standing will have equal precedence. The Presiding Officer announces his/her method of selection at the beginning of the session. Practices vary in popularity based on the tournament and the region, but include:
Another process that is used: In the first preliminary round, as well as the semi-final and final rounds, each speaker is issued a set of priority cards, typically one through five or one through six depending on the number of rounds and bills. Speakers wishing to speak on the side of the bill (Proponency or Opponency) currently in order hold up their lowest number priority card to indicate the desire to speak. Lower numbers have priority over higher numbers, and in case of tied numbers, priority is given to the speaker who has unsuccessfully attempted to speak the most times or asked the most questions. In cases of an absolute tie, speakers are asked to yield or to participate in a coin toss or quick game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. The speaker who wins the floor surrenders their lowest number priority card to the Presiding Officer. A speaker who has exhaused the supply of priority cards may only speak if no other speakers contest said speaker for the floor.
Once the floor is awarded to a speaker, a three minute maximum speech is given, the remainder of the time either yielded to questioning or "absorbed by the chair." At this point, the House has two minutes to ask questions of the speaker with the floor. Speakers who have given the least questions are called on first. If the chamber feels that the content of the speech or the speaker's response to questions merit additional questioning, some tournaments allow for the suspension of the rules to extend questioning time.
Typically, questions will attempt to expose faults in the speech just given. Sometimes speakers planning to speak or having spoken on the same side of the bill as the Senator currently holding the floor will ask him or her to agree with a statement pertaining to the relevant side of the argument. This is known as a "friendly question" and in some regions is discouraged. Questions, and their respective answers, are to be short and to the point, as delays will unfairly cut into other speakers' question time. However, asking questions to suggest the speaker to make a point is against NFL rules.
A pair of one proponency and one opponency speech in that order is considered a cycle. In between cycles, time is given for speakers to introduce motions onto the floor. In most tournaments, the Presiding Officer has a large amount of discretion to exercise over whether or not to rule motions in order, but at high level competitions, such as CHSSA State Qualifiers, the Presiding Officer is meant to be a strict procedurist; that is, the P.O. should simply follow through with any motions introduced.
Some motions are meant to change the topic of debate. Motions falling under this category include motions to lay a bill on the table (ending debate on a bill), motions to take a bill from the table (re-starting debate on a bill), and the motion to previous question, which is a motion to vote to pass or fail a bill. Some tournaments establish a minimum time before the Previous Question can be called; others have a limit on how long debate can run. Because voting on a bill will end debate on that bill immediately, it is sometimes considered rude or in bad form to make such a motion before all participants who desire to speak on that bill have done so. A Presiding Officer might rule the motion dilitary in such a situation. If some participants wish to speak while others want to move on, a compromise might be reached in which the bill is tabled and then returned to.
After the Previous Question has been called and the bill or bills voted on, the Presiding Officer announces whether or not a two-thirds vote has been reached, which is required to pass any bill. This is merely a formality, as well as in some states an explicit signal of the end of the round. The Presiding Officer will than entertain Motions to adjorn or recess, which is seconded and passed. The speakers exit.
At most Congressional Debate tournaments, awards are given to recognize the best speakers in each chamber. Often, members of the chamber itself vote for one of the awards given. The best legislation written and best all-around teams are also often recognized.
TFA Checklist for running Congress at your tournament