Student Congress started in 1938 with Pi Kappa Delta, the oldest national collegiate forensic organization, and the National Forensic League, now the National Speech & Debate Association (NSDA). Since then, Student Congress has expanded across the country. In addition to national competitions, many states host their own competitions.
Student Congress, also known as Congressional Debate, is a mock congressional session created by students. Students must learn the process of passing legislation, including how to research and write mock legislation, organize speeches, use parliamentary procedure, and speak effectively.
The process to create a congress session starts in the classroom. Students brainstorm ideas, research topics and create the legislation, which is then submitted for consideration on a “docket,” or the complete packet of legislation that can be debated. Regional congress directors rank the bills based on various factors, with the highest rankings used in the competition.
Legislation falls into two categories: resolutions and bills. Resolutions encourage lawmakers to do something but do not mandate any particular action. Bills include a law that will become mandatory. Bills also include more details about how the law will work – what the law mandates, how it will be enforced, when it goes into effect and how it will be funded. Both types have a specific format that must be followed for submission.
The challenge for writing legislation is to find topics that are serious in nature and substantial in scope, but also debatable. Most topics have a national scope and can include a social, economic or political focus. As authors of legislation, students must conduct thorough research to develop their legislation.
Dockets typically include 20 to 30 pieces of legislation. The docket is published for those who are entered in the particular competition. Competitors then research and write arguments and speeches in favor and in opposition of each piece of legislation to prepare for the contest. At each contest, students will caucus with other competitors to determine which items will be placed on the agenda for that session and therefore debated.
What is chosen for debate at one competition might not be chosen for another. Thus, students must prepare for all pieces of legislation to be competitive. The author of the legislation, or representative of the authoring school, is guaranteed the initial speech on the legislation. This is followed by a speech opposing the legislation. Debate then alternates between those who are speaking in favor and those who are speaking in opposition to the legislation.
Most tournaments call for following precedence when calling for speakers. Precedence is the act of recognizing those who have not spoken or those who have spoken least often. This allows for all students to have equal opportunity to speak on an issue. Student Congress speeches are usually three minutes in length and include two to three well-developed arguments with credible evidence as support. Refutation of opposing ideas occurs in the speeches as well.
Students also learn the art of asking questions. After a speech is given, the floor is open to a time of questioning. Typically, the timeframe for questions is one to two minutes, depending on the rules. Questions range from clarification questions to questions that expose potential flaws in the speakers’ arguments, as well as questions that lay the groundwork for upcoming arguments on the legislation. Because the time allotted for questioning is relatively short, students must ask concise and well-worded questions.
A student presiding officer, who is elected by members of the session, conducts the congress session. While all student competitors must know basic parliamentary procedure, such as how to end debate on a piece of legislation or amend a motion, the presiding officer must employ parliamentary rules to maintain control by equitably calling on members to give speeches and ask questions, keeping time, conducting votes on motions, and keeping order during the competitive session. In this contest, parliamentary procedure ensures that the session is run smoothly and all contestants have an equal chance to participate. Presiding officers serve to promote an environment that maintains educational value while allowing for competition.
Judges assign scores to students based on speeches and questioning. Presiding officers are scored based on how they run the session. Students win the competition by their overall participation in a session, whether that is as the presiding officer or as congress people who have effectively presented unique arguments that further the debate and refute the opposition.
The value of Student Congress goes further than just how well a student places at a tournament.
Noah Recker, president of the Texas Forensic Association, asserts that congress is one of the most valuable events in which students can participate. He says, “No event combines emotional, logical and ethical arguments so seamlessly, while also helping develop writing skills as students construct legislation.”
Because students must research both sides of many varying issues, Student Congress is an ideal way to teach critical thinking through analyzing, assessing and improving upon issues that are timely and relevant. Students learn to communicate their ideas clearly and accurately with sound evidence, good reasoning and depth of thought.
Students are empowered through this process to examine the world around them and advocate for change. Melissa Witt, president of the Texas Speech Communication Association, describes Student Congress as an opportunity for students to debate in a real-world context because “it challenges them to be well-researched on a variety of topics as well as to consider the impact various legislative solutions would have on the U.S. economy, relations with other countries and the everyday lives of American citizens. It gives them insight into the responsibility of holding a public office.”
While certainly not all students who participate in Student Congress competition will go on to hold public office, those who participate learn important lessons in analysis, verbal and written communication, research, and argumentation which they will use regardless of what they do after high school. If nothing else, students will have the basic parliamentary tools to bring some order to otherwise chaotic boards, civic events or PTO meetings as they go out into the world.
The rules have changed since 1938, but the value to our students has not.
Mellessa Denny of Amarillo (Texas) High School has coached high school speech and debate for 19 years, with students participating on the local, state and national levels. She is the past president of the Texas Speech Communication Association.