Fixing Congressional Debate

By Tyler R. Parsons

Vermilion H.S. (CLE) Assistant Coach and Experienced Congressional Debate Parliamentarian

Congressional Debate is an event which I love very much; I competed in it for four years, have judged it for three years, and have coached it for one year.  It has positively affected my life and the lives of many others who have competed in the event.  However, because I love Congressional Debate, I’ve come to realize that it is a flawed event and in need of an intervention.

Through my own analysis of the situation (and vibrant discussions with other Parliamentarians), I have come to the conclusion that Congressional Debate needs a comprehensive, foundational overhaul—specifically regarding the legislation, the scoring system (base), and how speeches/speakers themselves are judged.  Only through rebuilding this flawed foundation will the event operate effectively and generate truly great debate.

Legislation

At the 2017 State Tournament, I—along with fellow Parliamentarian Alejandro Chock and a handful of other judges—discussed legislation in great detail, and we agreed that there are issues with legislation in Ohio Congress.  While there are guidelines on the OHSSL website that outline how you should write pieces of legislation, as well as what you should and shouldn’t write about, it seems to me (and others) that these guidelines often are not followed.  Legislation that is one-sided, confusing, unconstitutional, or flat-out ridiculous has become all too common in Congressional Debate.

Legislation should be written so that it has a multitude of arguments on both sides, and so that it deals with a current controversial issue.  Legislation that is not up to standards should not be included on the docket just to provide an even number of bills from each OHSSL district.  If that means that at the State Tournament there are 18 Youngstown bills, six Akron bills, four GMV bills, and zero Tarhe Trails, Cleveland, and Canton bills—then so be it.  If a student or school wants his or her piece of legislation to be debated, then s/he should write legislation that can be debated effectively, allowing for numerous unique arguments for each side.

While a bill to better feed hungry babies is noble, and even a resolution to end the war between vampires and werewolves can be funny, they cannot be seriously/effectively debated on both sides.  Abortion, LGBTQ rights, domestic infrastructure, international affairs, and defense-spending are all broad and controversial topics—with arguments for both sides on almost any specific issue within themselves.  Judges likely won’t hate speakers because they give a pro-life-centric speech, or because s/he thinks the defense budget needs to be decreased.

What judges loathe is hearing seven affirmative speeches making the same argument and one negative speech that is poor—simply because the legislation is basic and one-sided.  If we start by fixing how we create dockets, both at the State Tournament and weekly tournaments, we’ll make great strides to improve Congressional Debate in Ohio.

“What judges loathe is hearing seven affirmative speeches making the same argument and one negative speech that is poor—simply because the legislation is basic and one-sided.”

 

Scoring (Base)

The “Base” system—ranking competitors by an average of speech scores multiplied by whatever “base” number is reached—has serious flaws.

For example, a room might only reach “Base One,” and an individual who only presides could win the chamber.  In competitive, high-school speech and debate, this is not something that should occur.  While acting as a presiding officer is extremely important and should not be discouraged, students should also have to give a speech to do well in Congress.

Further, the base system also doesn’t allow for any way to score the asking of questions.  An individual could ask some of the best questions, which themselves lead to in-depth debate, but under the base system this doesn’t benefit her or him in any way.

Meanwhile, “Judge Preference” (JP) is more subjective because judges directly compare speakers (as opposed to scoring just the speeches themselves).  However, JP allows a congressional debater to actually be judged on his or her ability to debate.  This also prevents someone from merely presiding and winning a chamber because, in all likelihood, the judges will place the presiding officer lower than someone who gives several speeches.  While JP can seem bizarre when ranks are extremely varied (because of judges’ different ideas of what a quality speech sounds like)—on the whole it is a better option than Base.

” An individual could ask some of the best questions, which themselves lead to in-depth debate, but under the base system this doesn’t benefit her or him in any way.”

While a few of us in the Congress community are developing our own ideas for a new scoring system, at this point there’s no better option.  In my opinion, Judge Preference is a better scoring system than Base; however, in the future, if a better hybrid system is developed we should be open to changing from JP to that new system.  But at this point there is no alternative, thus a change to Judge Preference at local tournaments and the State Tournament should occur.

Judging

Much like writing legislation, the OHSSL provides a rubric for how speeches/speakers should be judged.  I will not repeat the entire rubric, but a “six” speech is defined by a few qualities: extemporaneous delivery; cited sources with effective analysis; new arguments and refutation of previous speakers (when applicable); and clear, fluent delivery.

So how is it that when one judges scores a competitor a “four” on a speech that is delivered extemporaneously and fluently (but with no cited sources, weak analysis, no refutation, and with the same arguments previous speakers already have said), another judge gives her a “six”?  The first judge followed the rubric (and maybe was generous in giving the competitor a “four”), but another judge personally believes that none of those other factors matter, and thus the student receives a “six.”

From judge to judge a particular aspect of the speech may be valued more or less, but judges completely ignoring the rubric while giving students high or low scores—is preposterous.  What is the point of a rubric if a judge isn’t going to follow it?  It’s as bad as, if not worse than, a judge giving someone a “one” because they only spoke for a minute.

Judging needs to be more consistent and judges need to actually read and follow the rubric when scoring speeches and subsequently ranking speakers.

This also applies to the Presiding Officer (PO) rubric.  A judge should not give a PO, who makes no parliamentary mistakes and who gets through twelve speeches in an hour—a “five” with only “Good job” written on the ballot.  (It is borderline rude.)  I appreciate those who take the time out of their Saturdays to judge; it is a long day, and sometimes two; but judges still need to follow the rubric.  Doing so will lead to more consistent scores on speeches and ranks in Judge Preference scoring.

“Judging needs to be more consistent and judges need to actually read and follow the rubric when scoring speeches and subsequently ranking speakers.”

 

Direct Questioning

While not a current foundation of Congressional Debate, this is an important topic to briefly discuss.  Although I was originally opposed to Direct Questioning due to the difficulty of keeping precedence, in order to officially make “Student Congress” into Congressional Debate there needs to exist a back-and-forth cross-examination.  The ability of a questioner to follow up and force speakers to answer their questions truly makes the event a debate event.

Congressional Debate has more issues than just the ones mentioned here.  However, if the OHSSL addresses these issues first, Congressional Debate could be greatly improved.  The best part about all of these issues is that they can each be solved individually and separately.  Therefore, even if we only address some of the issues described here, we still would accomplish something significant.

However, if none of these issues is addressed, Congressional Debate will continue to limp into the future as a flawed event.