Student Congress Debate: Structure and Rules

At the beginning of the tournament, students are divided into “chambers,” or the large groups in which they will debate. Some chambers further subdivide into “committees,” which set an agenda for bills just as the U.S. Congress would do.

At the beginning of a round, the debaters elect a presiding officer, if one has not been selected already. The presiding officer will then initiate the procedure for choosing which bills will be debated during that round – if there are no committees, informal caucuses or a group vote usually decide the docket.

Once both the docket and the presiding officer have been chosen, the congress follows Robert’s Rules of Order, a popular type of parliamentary procedure dating from the mid-19th century. For each bill, the presiding officer announces the legislation and its author, and the author gives a four-minute speech that both introduces the bill and outlines the author’s main contentions. The presiding officer then calls for a speech in opposition to the bill, which also lasts four minutes. If no one volunteers to speak, the presiding officer may select someone.

After these two four-minute speeches, debate continues as a series of three-minute speeches from various chamber members. These debaters must motion to speak, and the presiding officer must call on them, before they are allowed to do so. Rules for choosing who speaks when vary from region to region and tournament to tournament, but in general, the debaters who have given the least speeches over the course of the round are given greater priority.

Each speech is followed by a question or a cross-examination period, which is used to expose weaknesses in the speaker’s logic.

Once every speaker who wants to speak has had the chance to do so, representatives may motion to vote on the bill or to come back to it later. Once all bills have been voted on, the presiding officer dismisses the round.

A tournament will consist of several such rounds, often spread over the course one or two days. At the end of the tournament, awards are given for the best speakers in each chamber, as well as the best written legislation and the best team all-around, as determined by the community judges or, occasionally, the chamber members themselves.