Congress is Boring

Nicholas Ostheimer | 9/16/22

Congress is boring. I don't say that as a speech kid, who thinks congress is just a speech event for lightweights. I don't say that as a debate kid, who thinks that the argumentation in congress is a joke. Having done congress now at the local, state, and national level for nigh-on 5 years, I can say confidently that congress is really not as interesting as it should be.

It's easy to think that congress has always been the way it is right now. When you look back on congress's immense history as a debate event in the United States, you realize how different and diverse congressional debate has been throughout the country. Reading Adam Jacobi's article about the history of congress was truly enlightening - from argumentation norms to procedural differences, congress is completely different now than it was at the first congress round in 1938. Performance was once based on what the other legislators thought of you. For most of congress's history, POs didn't have to account for precedence and recency when recognizing speakers. Amendments to legislation used to be commonplace, rather than an obscure and frowned-upon practice.

This diverse and dynamic tradition of congressional debate has changed dramatically in the last two decades. Until 2007, every district had its own protocol for sending debaters to nationals in congressional debate. Most localities had varying rules and interpretations of congressional debate, fostering radically different styles across the country. This led to novel performances at nationals, where clashing and contradicting styles from across America were pitted against each other. This changed in 2006, 2007, and 2009, when the NSDA created new committees charged with standardizing national qualifiers, clarifying and refining national standards, and making congress more consistent and simple.

We also need to examine the influence that national circuit congressional debate had on congress. The first "natcirc" tournament was the Harvard National Congress in 1995. The first Tournament of Champions for congressional debate ran for 3 years in Ft Lauderdale until 2005, when it was absorbed by the University of Kentucky's Tournament of Champions. Since then, dozens more "natcirc" tournaments popped up across the country, hosting . By the late 2000s, these tournaments, usually run by prestigious universities and hosting the most competitive debaters, were some of the first to accept the NSDA's new standards. Not only that, but prevalent national competition.

Every single one of these factors contributed to norms in congressional debate becoming extremely streamlined. Sure, local circuits may still have their own eccentricities and odd norms that deviate from the national standard, but everyone has a very similar conception of what congressional debate actually means. This is in large part due to the NSDA's standardization efforts. If a district wants to send students to nationals, they have to play by the NSDA's rules. If a debater wants to champ Harvard, or TOC, or Sunvite, or literally any national circuit tournament, they have to play by the NSDA's rules.

These tournaments did away with student self-ranking, gave POs more duties and responsibilities, and abolished the infamous base system by which students would be evaluated. Rounds focused less on simulating a true-to-life legislative process, and more on alternating speeches in favor of or against a bill. Congress was always about debate, yes, but this shift focused congress mostly on letting everyone give speeches in favor of or against the legislation at hand. Debate became more technical, leaving behind its roots in performance, advocacy, and roleplay, and refocusing on a more detailed argument about the benefits and negatives of the legislation.

Congress is trying to be something it's not. Congressional debate shouldn't be like a PF round except with 15 speakers. The format is incompatible with the breadth and depth of argumentation we see in any "pure" debate event, including PF, LD, CX, and even Worlds. When everyone in a round of 10-25 people can only speak for 3 minutes, the potential for nuanced argumentation is nearly non-existent. No one speaker has the opportunity to elaborate on an argument to the extent it deserves. No truly comprehensive or conclusive evaluation of a bill can be accomplished in 3 minutes. Except for very high level rounds, debate never goes beyond the surface level

Perhaps more importantly, now congressional debaters just don't like surprises. In the past, it was commonplace to move past a bill when everything that needs to be said has been said. Now, it's utterly taboo to move to the previous question until every single person who wants to speak has spoken, even at the expense of productive, relevant, and intriguing debate. In the past, debaters would often introduce amendments to legislation, addressing arguments brought up in the round in real time, necessitating problem solving skills, collaboration, and a deep familiarity with the procedural intricacies in congress. Now, amendments are downright hated: students would much rather prep out a speech and rebuttals for a single bill, and not risk embarrassment or poor performance if they can't adapt to changes in the legislation itself.

Read our articles about amendments here.

This is because congress was never meant to be a pure debate event. From its conception in 1938, congress was about roleplaying representatives from each state, protecting their constituents interests, creating, changing, and passing legislation for the good of the country. A round with over a dozen people faces structural limitations on nuanced debate at every turn.

The first and most obvious way to bring back dynamism and adaptation is to make amendments more common. Despite its structural limitations, I do think that contemporary congressional debate has more nuanced argumentation than in the past. This argumentation, however, is limited to just the original iteration of the bill: the ability to adapt, refute, and respond to ever-changing conditions used to be a pillar of exemplary performance in congress, and it still is an essential aspect of any other debate event. Bringing back amendments will revive some of the original spirit of congressional debate, while also uplifting argumentation in-round, promoting important skills currently undervalued in congress.

The second way to improve congressional debate is to normalize moving to the previous question before everyone has spoken. It's important to recognize this comes at the risk of harming speech equity, and this needs to be counteracted with other changes, like longer round times and the prevalence of amendments. Most congress rounds are vulnerable to extremely boring rehash: the solution is to either move on before everyone has spoken, or to amend the bill and begin new, interesting debates instead. Yes, the fault lies with the competitor for failing to adapt, but the rest of the chamber also lacks the recourse to actually stop rehash from taking over the round and boring everyone involved.

Other changes are for the better. Undoubtedly, congressional debate has become more equitable and fair. Allowing everyone a very predictable chance to speak on legislation certainly reduces the chance of exclusion. Reforms requiring the PO to dutifully recognize precedence and recency dramatically improved impartiality and cut out significant human bias. Elimination rounds, which are a relatively new advancement, create the best rounds ever and allow amazing debates to prosper.

Congress has had a long and fascinating history. Recent standardizations and changes have pushed congress to new norms, both good and bad, diverging from its original procedural nuances and argumentational adaptation. Instead of trying to simulate the depth and breadth of argumentation in other debates, congress should reembrace its past as a faithful simulation of the legislative process, and reemphasize the importance of adaptation and dynamism.