Policy Debate: Overview

Policy is a form of research-based debate that pits teams of two against each other for lengthy, fast-paced matches about U.S. government policy. Unlike other debate categories, policy emphasizes research and preparation virtually above all else, and policy debaters are encouraged to speak rapidly – so rapidly, in fact, that it is sometimes difficult for non-debaters to understand them.

To allow debaters ample time to prepare, the National Federation of State High School Associations releases new policy topics only once a year, in early January. These resolutions take the form of something the U.S. federal government should or should not do, like “the United States federal government should substantially increase public health services for mental health care in the United States” or “the United States federal government should substantially increase alternative energy incentives in the United States.”

Once debaters have received the resolution, they begin researching the topic and formulating an affirmative “plan” – the concrete, specific interpretation of the resolution – that they will debate at tournaments. They must also craft contentions, or central arguments, that deal with the stock issues of solvency, inherency and harms.

Because debaters are not pre-assigned the affirmative or negative side, and may have to switch sides from round to round, it is important that they understand all of the angles and interpretations of the resolution extremely well. Research can take months, and debaters must carefully document all of it – in fact, it’s not unusual to see teams wheel tubs of evidence into tournaments.

After all that research and preparation, however, debaters have only eight speeches and four cross-examination periods in which to make their case. Naturally, that isn’t easy to do – prompting some debaters to speak up to or well over 300 words per minute in tournament rounds.