POs Among Us

Athena Tian | 2/10/23

NSDA National Champion in the House of Representatives (1). 6th place at Yale Invitational in a final chamber of 16 (2). 2nd place at Florida Blue Key in a final chamber of 20 (3). 5th place at Glenbrooks Invitational in a final chamber of 16 (4). 2nd place at Barkley Forum at Emory in a final chamber of 18 (5). 7th place at Sunvitational in a final chamber of 16 (6). 1st place at Harvard National Forensics Tournament in a final chamber of 12 (7). 

What is common throughout all of the aforementioned accolades? For one, they all come from Tier 3 tournaments, competitive enough that the top 60 competitors in Congressional Debate of each competition earn bids to the Tournament of Champions (8), and are extremely impressive in any capacity. However, though the holders of each one of the aforementioned titles debated intensely in order to reach the final rounds of their respective tournaments, they earned their high placement in the final session of Congressional Debate, in spite of not participating in the debate during the final session. Each of the former accolades was earned by the presiding officer (PO) of each final session, respectively.  

A presiding officer in Congressional Debate is selected in each chamber of competition in order to run the competition, ensure speaking order gives a fair opportunity for all competitors to present speeches and questions, communicate with judges, carry out legislative procedure such as voting on dockets, legislation, and suspension of rules. Each session has one presiding officer, who does not participate in the debate itself, however still receives a rank from every judge in the room upon the conclusion of the session, much like the debating competitors. Each competitor’s ranks from each judge are added together, and the competitor with the lowest rank total emerges on top, breaking into elimination rounds and winning awards. 

The presiding officer role is valued by many judges and competitors, and rightfully so. For the entirety of a session which may last anywhere from two to three hours, the presiding officer is the authoritative figure in the room who dictates the flow of procedures and management of time. However, an increasingly prevalent pattern seen in competitive rounds of Congressional Debate tournaments has been picked up by competitors nationwide: a competent presiding officer is nearly guaranteed to place within the breaking ranks. The same cannot be said for any competitor who participates in the round as a debater. But how can a Congressional Debater who doesn’t participate in the debate be the only person in the round to be guaranteed a top-finishing rank? 

At the novice and local level, often a chamber has standout competitors which are undoubtedly placing near the top of the ranks for every judge, regardless of the judge’s experience or paradigm. However at the national level, each competitor in the round has mastered what judges typically look for to distinguish standout competitors at the lower levels: argumentation, refutation, decorum, presentation confidence, and evidence citation. Therefore, at the more intense levels of competition, each round typically has more judges, and more judges with varying levels of experience in varying debate events. For example while a judge with more experience in public forum favors a debater with fast speaking style and clash of several previous arguments within a three minute speech, another judge with more experience in speech events may favor a debater with a slower, more emphasis-based speaking style who addresses fewer arguments per speech but expands on the implications and limitations of each argument more deeply. The rankings from various judges of rounds at national level tournaments generally have higher standard deviation as the competition reaches its later stages, and rounds become more competitive, and the less skilled competitors are eliminated from the tournament. It becomes more and more common to see a competitor earn a rank of 9 (generally the lowest rank) from some judges in the round, but receive ranks in the top 3 from other judges in the round. 

Amidst the controversial and widely varying ranges of ranking debaters in a congressional debate round, most judges either state in their paradigms or silently follow the de facto rule that a respectful and smooth presiding officer will receive a rank in teh top 5 regardless of the strength of the debate which they did not partake in. Therefore, the presiding officer of elimination rounds are the only competitors whose ranks do not fluctuate. When the ranks are totaled, the presiding officer is nearly guaranteed to wind up either winning, or nearly winning a chamber. 

As competitors look for ways to guarantee their place in elimination rounds and awards categories at various tournaments they often find that no matter how convincing their arguments are, there are bound to be judges in the room who prefer the “vibes” of another competitor, who fail to understand the argument, or who value a specific trait which they do not possess, with the costly consequence being a low ranking which cannot be contested, and in a tightly-contested round, will drop them several places in overall rankings and hurt their chances of qualifying to the next round. 

Therefore, an increasing quantity of competitors have found serving as the presiding officer as a safer way to ensure a high placement in a field of strong debaters. Pre-round preparation before high-stakes rounds are filled with more than dozens of presiding officers, of which a fraction will choose to run against each other for the coveted position and guaranteed rank in a tightly contested election. Elections between multiple presiding officer candidates is often a long, drawn out process which can require multiple rounds of voting before a majority of the chamber votes in favor of one candidate, and a process in which tensions rise and debate is delayed as a second priority while judges await the conclusion of the process. 

The effect of more and more competitors turning up as suitors to the presiding officer position is that few, if any chambers are stranded without a presiding officer and require an inexperienced or undesiring competitor to serve as the PO. Additionally, fewer competitors turn up to rounds while insufficiently prepared to debate with the hope to avoid debate altogether by serving as the presiding officer. However, while Congressional Debaters champion and preach that Congress is a debate event or a combination of speech and debate, rather than purely a speech event, why should the only competitor who doesn’t actively participate in the debate be the only competitor who doesn’t actively engage in debate? What can be done to solve the overvaluation and oversaturation of presiding officers in speech and debate, especially in high-stakes and competitive rounds? 

The first solution involves a model that many competitions have already adopted, albeit its application has thus far been limited to the tiebreaking process. This process involves having at least four judges per round, each of whom will give a rank to each competitor in the round. However, in the tabulation of final results, the highest and lowest rank for each competitor is disregarded. This system would account for one of the primary concerns among competitors which has resulted in a rising number of debaters foregoing the chance to debate against high level competition by attempting to serve as presiding officer: an undeservedly high or low rank from a judge due to bias, inexperience, or technical errors. In other words, while competitors see the presiding officer’s position as one that is less likely to get “tanked” in the rankings for a foolish reason, this system significantly decreases the chances of one judge’s highly discrepant results affecting the overall results of a round, and therefore encourages more debaters to participate in the debate at high-level tournaments. 

Another method has been adopted by the prestigious University of Kentucky Tournament of Champions: separating the competition between presiding officers and debaters in Congressional Debate. While the skills required by presiding and debate overlap in some senses, such as professionalism, time management, confidence, and attention to detail, many other skills which are required for one are not nearly as important in the other. Hence, the Tournament of Champions has adopted a system in which the final round consists of 12 debaters, and three presiding officers in one session. The three presiding officers are selected from throughout the tournament, a competitive process in which the three competitors who earned the highest ranks while presiding are selected to compete in the separate “PO Finals.” The presiding officers are each given a set amount of speeches to preside over, after which they will hand the gavel off to the next presiding officers. At the conclusion of the session, each judge will give two sets of ranks: one set of rankings to the 12 debaters, and another set of rankings to the three presiding officers. Two tournament champions are named: the champion of Congressional Debate, as well as the tournament’s top presiding officer. 

Serving as a trailblazer in the post-COVID era has been a priority for two of the six regular-season Top-60 Congress bid tournaments: The Barkley Forum at Emory and the Harvard Speech and Debate Tournament. Not only are these some of the most prestigious tournaments which attract the most involved competitors, teams, and judges, Emory and Harvard also serve as dream schools for a significant portion of speech and debate participants. Should these two tournaments adopt either of the aforementioned models of integrating presiding officers into the competition, other tournaments could well follow suit, and Congressional Debate could once again be an event whose top honors are earned by a combination of debaters and presiding officers, rather than being disproportionately dominated by presiding officers.