run someone off his or her feet

Student Congress

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 emulate United States Congressmen 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 or the time on the bill has elapsed, participants vote on the bill.

Many students and debate coaches enjoy the Congressional Debate format because

  • it lets students debate material that they've written themselves, on topics that concern them.
  • it gives students knowledge of a wide variety of important issues.
  • it forces students to prepare arguments for both sides of any given topic.
  • it introduces students to the practices and procedures of the U.S. legislature.
  • it encourages students to think and speak "on their feet."

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.



The typical Congressional Debate speech is three minutes long. However, the school who has written the bill being spoken on begins with a four minute authorship speech followed by one four minute speech in negation. After these two four minute speeches, debate continues with three minute speeches. Within this time, the speaker must lay out an organized, logical defense of why the chamber should vote for or against a given bill. The general format of a speech is as follows:

  1. Introduction: A statement, anecdote, fact, or statistic designed to capture the imagination and the attention of the audience. The introduction is then tied into the argument of the speech, as the speaker urges the chamber to vote one way or another. Then the three main lines of argument are "foreshadowed" to give the audience an idea of where the speech is leading.
  2. Contentions: Two or three arguments for or against the bill. Each contention should be explained in the speaker's own words, as well as supported by evidence from reputable and relevant sources.
  3. Conclusion: The speaker restates his 2 or 3 contentions, and hopefully returns briefly to the attention-grabber of the introduction to give the speech thematic unity. They end with the phrase "I am now open for cross-examinations and further points of clarification."

Criteria for judging

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:

  • Eloquence: A good Congressional debater should speak powerfully and clearly, correctly use appropriate vocabulary, and vary his or her voice throughout the speech to emphasize certain points or to create a specific mood.
  • Logic: The points advanced by a debater should be well-explained and should effectively sway the audience towards the speaker's beliefs on the subject.
  • Organization: The speech should have a well-defined outline, generally following the guidelines of the "format" section above.
  • Extemporaneity: Although a speaker may bring up notes or a note card when delivering his or her speech, the less reading, the better. Pre-written speeches on a bill are referred to as canned speeches and are highly discouraged, and in some organizations considered a form of cheating. Unless it is the first speech of the session, a speech should refer to the points that have already been made, usually by refuting points brought up by the opposition.


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.

Chambers and sessions

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.

In some tournaments, congressional debaters go through a series of rounds such as: prelims, quarterfinals, and semifinals. The top ranked debators in each chamber of semifinals (usually top 6), move on to Super Congress, which in simplist terms is the Finals. In the supers round the height ranked debaters must write a speech on legislation they get as they enter the round. Because they usually know nothing of the legislation before hand they don't have time to reaserch therefore must speak off of prior knowledge. At some competitions the legeslation is produced off a senario, that is a hypothetical situation takes place that requires the U.S. congress to take action to resolve the hypothetical issue. These debaters are then ranked in the top 6 for awards.

Presiding Officers and judges

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. This indicates which speakers have priority/recency over other speakers. 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.

When a PO is elected, they automatically receive the next first two speeches. The PO is not actually speaking but this is just Parliamentary Procedure. Also, during the session that a PO serves, they are ranked 6-12, 6 being the worst and 12 being the best, because the PO automatically gets two speeches and mathematically the worst you can get in two speeches is a 6 and the best you can get is a 12. They are judged on how well they enforced parliamentary procedure, how well they kept track of priority/recency, and how many mistakes they made if any.

Speeches are ranked by judges, usually adults, who rotate among 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.

The format


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 "Ways and Means," 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 (the chairman who runs the chamber) are voted on, and once one is selected, debate begins.

In many parts of the country, committees are not used, with students instead participating in an informal caucus featuring one competitor from each school.

Parliamentary procedure

Congressional Debate uses Robert's Rules of Order, a popular system of parliamentary 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 off 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 authorship

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.

Subsequent speeches

After the authorship or sponsorship speech, the Presiding Officer calls for a speech in opposition to the bill. If there is no one who will speak in negation, a student will be called to affirm. However, one sided debate (negation after negation or affirmation after affirmation) is frowned upon. Whichever debaters wish 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, these rules are observed.

When one speaker has given fewer speeches (either in that session or in the tournament as a whole) than another speaker, the former has precedence. If their speech amounts are equal, then the speaker who spoke earliest receives precedence. When everyone is making their first speech, either the P.O. chooses the speakers however he/she pleases or whoever has asked the most questions receives precedence.

Some methods used by P.O.s include:

  • Tracking the number of cross-examination questions a speaker has asked
  • Tracking how long the speaker has been standing to speak on the current piece of legislation
  • Calling "randomly" on speakers
  • Considering which speakers were the first to stand
  • Considering which speakers have been standing for the most number of speeches
  • Distributing speeches equally among geographic regions (considering separately the four quadrants of the chamber)
  • Following a pattern based on location, for instance, by calling on speakers from front-to-back, or left-to-right, and then reversing the order in the following session

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 exhausted the supply of priority cards may only speak if no other speakers contest said speaker for the floor.

Questioning or Cross Examination

Once the floor is awarded to a speaker and a three minute maximum speech is given, under current NFL rules, the speaker is required to answer questions for at least one minute. Some areas and tournaments (such as the Harvard National Congress), rather than using the relatively new one minute mandatory cross examination period, revert to old NFL rules and use the remaining time a speech has before three minutes have elapsed for cross examination in order to allow for more speeches in a session. If, however, the speaker is giving the first speech on a piece of legislation, there is a mandatory two minutes of questioning. Members of the chamber (people who are not current speakers) who have given the least questions are called on first to ask questions. 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. However, much of the time such a suspension is looked down upon and viewed as a waste of time, unless the extension was absolutely necessary.

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 or Congressperson 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 dilatory 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 majority 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 adjourn 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.

Frequently Used Parliamentary Motions

The following motions are used at almost all Student Congress tournaments:

Motion Notes Second Required Fraction of Chamber Required
To open the floor to debate* Also called the "main motion" Yes Majority
To take a bill from the table Opens debate on tabled legislation, which may or may not have already been debated Yes Majority
To lay a bill on the table Ends debate on a bill, but debate on a tabled bill may be resumed if it is later taken from the table, or if the rest of the docket is completed and time still allows Yes Majority
To call previous question To call "previous question" is to end debate on a bill and vote on it Yes 2/3
To recess The length of the recess must be specified Yes Majority
To rise to a point of personal privilege To make a personal request No Decision of chair
To rise to a point of order/parliamentary procedure To correct a parliamentary error, ask a question, or clarify a procedure No Decision of chair
To amend Modify a motion; filled out slip must be passed to P.O. in advance 1/3 Majority to Debate the amendment, then 2/3 to pass.
To adjourn Made at the end of a tournament Yes Majority

* Widely recognized to be an unnecessary motion. Most coaches and students agree that the floor is opened by the presiding officer, not by a motion coming from the chamber.

These motions are allowed at some Student Congress tournaments, depending on the region and the style of debate:

Motion Notes Second Required Fraction of Chamber Required
To call for a roll call vote Used to verify a voice vote. Also called "Division of the House" Yes 1/5
To modify or withdraw a motion To change or take back a motion that has already been recognized Yes 2/3
To suspend the rules To take an action against rules (such as adding an additional minute of questioning) Yes 2/3
To appeal a decision of the chair To force the chair to hear a motion Yes Majority (PO) 2/3 (Judge)
To extend questioning time* To continue asking questions of the speaker Yes 2/3

* While not officially disallowed by the NFL, motions to extend questioning time are typically either not heard or ignored entirely to avoid wasting time

These motions were once common but are no longer allowed by the official NFL Student Congress guidelines (as of the 2006-07 school year):

Motion Notes Second Required Fraction of Chamber Required
For open chambers If open chambers is passed, representatives may move freely and even leave the house in the middle of debate. Yes 2/3
Yield to a two-part question To ask two related questions in a row; made before questions are asked No Decision of speaker


When an amendment is made, the P.O. first calls for a "1/3 second." If one-third of the house affirms the motion, the amendment is read aloud by the P.O. Then, a motion must be made to start debate on the amendment (this motion is treated as main motion). If this motion is not made or the motion fails, the amendment is immediately voted on.

If the motion passes, the author of the amendment, or someone from his or her school, has the opportunity to give an authorship speech, and if none is made a sponsorship speech may be given by anyone. Debate on the amendment follows the exact same rules of order as debate on a bill. A motion to previous question may be made at any time to vote on the amendment, and an amendment may itself be amended. If the 1/3 second is not made the amendment is not read and debate continues as if the motion had not been made.

Main Motion

The term "main motion" refers to the general flow of debate. The progression of affirmative and negative speeches and cross examinations are considered to be part of the main motion. Main motion has some special rules attached to it. Most importantly, the following motions may not be made while main motion is in effect:

  • Rearranging the docket.
  • Taking a bill from the table.

The following motions may end main motion, but they can only be made after a negative speech, or after negative speeches are called for and none are offered:

  • Previous question.
  • A motion to table the current bill.

Once main motion has been made at the beginning of the session, it is assumed to remain in effect for all bills on the docket, even though it does not apply in between bills. It must be made manually if another motion, such as an amendment, is to be debated on.

Referring to a committee

When a motion to refer to a committee is made, the representative making the motion must indicate what the committee is to consider and for how long. If the motion passes, a representative from each school elects to be on the committee, and these students form the committee. The committee leaves the general area to deliberate in private and is called back when time expires. A committee member presents the conclusion to the rest of the house once all members are settled. At this point, the motion is complete; further action regarding the results must be taken with another motion.


Student Congress is a relatively new form of high school debate. Only in the last decade has it emerged as a wide-spread form of a debate. Many of the initial proponents of Congressional Debate saw it as an alternative to policy debate, which places a large amount of emphasis on speaking very quickly. Student Congress, on the other hand, emphasizes clear and persuasive communication to an audience of one's peers.


In the past decade, Student Congress has spread widely across the debate community. Harold C. Keller should be noted due to his strong promotion of Student Congress to be recognized at "Nationals". Keller was instrumental in making Student Congress what it is today and thus has earned himself the unofficial title "Mr. Congress." The first major tournament outside of NFL and NCFL nationals to host Student Congress was the Harvard University Tournament traditionally held near President's Day weekend in February. Other major tournaments which host congress competitions include The University of Florida Blue Key, Wake Forest Early Bird, Yale, Princeton, the Villiger tournament in Philadelphia, the Glenbrooks tournament in Chicago, the Crestian Classic in Florida, Penn, George Mason, and Stanford. In addition, Congress is now one of the official events at the debate Tournament of Champions, hosted by the University of Kentucky. Students who achieve a high level of competitive success at other national tournaments qualify to compete at the TOC, which brings together some of the best congresspersons from across the nation.

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