Congressional Debate for Beginners

By Narrelle Gilchrist

One year ago, I stepped into a room filled with animated, quarreling competitors and two stone-faced judges, armed with a stack of legal pads, a few weeks’ worth of research, and thirteen speeches. I was at the 2015 Nova University Sunvitational, a national debate tournament, and it was my first time doing congressional debate.

For the past year and a half, I have experienced the unparalleled joy of competing on the national circuit of congressional debate. A high school speech and debate event, congressional debate offers a forum for competitors to write, debate, and vote on legislation that would be debated on in the United States Congress. In chambers that follow parliamentary procedure and are run by student presiding officers, students alternate giving three-minute speeches supporting or opposing each piece of legislation, with opportunities for direct refutation and cross-examination in between. At tournaments, congressional debate can be undeniably fun, offering both meaningful debate and a connection to a vast, national community.

However, the prospect of leaping into the event like I did can be daunting, and most debaters probably don’t look back on their first day as fondly as I do. Instead, they remember it is as the day when they spoke only once, or not at all, gazed in awe at the most experienced competitors, and quivered before standing up to ask a question. For their first few tournaments, most debaters focus on finding their feet within the congressional world. Yet, I believe that anyone can have what it takes to succeed in congressional debate from the start of their very first tournament, as long as they have three key skills – research and rhetoric, knowledge of congressional procedure, and confidence and presence.

First, let’s look at research and rhetoric – what I like to call the writing package. Long before I started congress, I was a writer. I wrote research papers, editorials, and commentary, all of which focused heavily on the political world. Thus, when I first saw a 13-bill packet of legislation, far from feeling overwhelmed, I felt at home; this was just another set of research. Perhaps the easiest way to become a polished congressional debater is to become a writer first. Your first priority in any round is to make your position clear and coherent, developed through both rhetoric and carefully evaluated analysis. In congress, we have the ability to use emotional persuasion and rhetoric – something that is widely frowned upon in other debate events, such as Lincoln-Douglas and Public Forum. The best way to develop this skill is to become a writer.

Congress also takes a great deal of research. With anywhere from 10 to 20 topics per tournament, you need to learn how to quickly and effectively gather information and evidence about each topic, often sifting tirelessly through the Internet. The only way to learn to do this is to practice: researching often and widely. It may be time-consuming, but ultimately, it pays off, because researching yourself allows you to develop a deep understanding of the legislation. If you can’t explain the legislation, you won’t be able to defend your position in cross-examination. For many complex issues within the 2015 National Debate Tournament legislation, such as the Cadillac tax or cap and trade programs, I felt tempted to skate by – to use briefs or hastily prepared arguments to write my speeches. But ultimately, this would have been a mistake. I may have spent many onerous hours researching, but in the end, when a friend’s parent asked me, I was able to concisely and accurately explain both the concept of cap and trade and my position. Being able to provide this explanation in your own words, both in and out of session, is essential.

Second, you have to focus on congressional procedure. Before your first tournament, it is best to familiarize yourself with these rules – everything from recency to points of personal privilege and motions. Also, make sure you know the distinctions between each league’s rules. Now, of course, being familiar with these procedures is important because it allows you to understand what is going on, but it also serves another purpose. It allows you to stand out to the judges, because you can make motions yourself and stand to contest possible rule violations. Saying phrases like “permission to address the chamber,” or “call for division of the house” makes you seem smart, engaged, and knowledgeable.

Knowledge of congressional procedure extends not just to the Robert’s Rules of Order, but also to an understanding of how chambers at tournaments run. You need to know how your competitors will think and feel – that everyone will groan if you try to extend questioning, or that anything longer than five minutes for a recess will probably be shot down. Perhaps the most important aspect begins way before the tournament even starts – the docket. When the docket is negotiated, it is very important that you make sure your needs are accommodated; you have to ensure that the bills you want to debate are on there and those you feel underprepared with are not. The problem is that if you wait for the session to start, the docket has already been decided; you won’t have a say at all. Often, the negotiating starts hours or even days before, depending on how early the tournament releases chambers and how proactive your competitors are. On the afternoon of registration day at Nationals this year, I fell asleep after an early morning plane flight. When I woke up and checked my Facebook, I found out that my congress chamber had already friended each other, met in the hotel lobby, and come up with a docket that included all the bills I didn’t like. It took me another two hours of Facebook messaging to get them to change the docket to accommodate my needs. This Facebook politicking isn’t uncommon, but on most occasions, the negotiating starts in the hallway outside the first session. Therefore, I suggest you get there early, ready to start negotiations.

Finally, we come to perhaps the most important part of congressional debate: confidence and presence. A congress session is unique from other forensic events in that it encompasses a far larger group of competitors, not all of whom are given equal attention. In a speech round, each of the six or seven competitors has ten minutes of the judges’ undivided attention, no more and no less. Similarly, in Public Forum, LD, or Policy, each competitor has a certain amount of speaking time, a certain amount of cross-examination. But in congress, you must fight for each moment of the judges’ attention. Naturally, a judge is more likely to rank someone whom they see often, who not just speaks twice, but also constantly makes motions, poses questions, and stands to address the chamber, rather than someone whom they see for only four or eight minutes of speaking time in a three-hour session. The easiest way to grab the judges’ attention is to constantly be participating in the chamber; you have to assert your presence within the room. This means that you can’t be afraid to stand up.

Of all forensic events, congressional debate is the most complex, but in my opinion, it is the best. Joining congressional debate can seem daunting, but ultimately, it is well worth it. The minute your first session begins, you will become part of a world you never knew existed – a world filled with camaraderie, meaningful debate, complex procedure, and unparalleled fun. Trust me. You won’t regret it.

Narrelle is a homeschooled teen from West Palm Beach, Florida. In addition to writing, she enjoys singing in a choir and playing piano, and loves literature, politics, history, astronomy, and physics. 

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