Our concept of democracy rests upon faith in the value of the individual. Our system of government and our way of life assume that every citizen has the right to a voice in determining the policies that affect his/her well-being.
Student Congress has been called "a realistic approach to the democratic idea of cooperative discussion." The idea on which it is based -- that of getting representative student leaders to consider some of the problems which actually confront our lawmakers -- is excellent. Training of this sort is invaluable. It is, in a sense, a preparation for real life.
For obtaining practice in the various types of public speaking, gaining a better knowledge of political science, provoking practice in discussion, debate, and parliamentary procedure, and learning to know students of other high schools, the Student Congress serves as an
excellent demonstration of Democracy at work.
--the first page of the 2002 Student Congress Manual (link at bottom)
Student Congress is one of the most rewarding of all the events sponsored by the National Forensic League. To say it is like Model United Nations is to say that bullfighting is like riding a stick horse--it's a convenient way to explain it in passing, but a very misleading one. To
elaborate briefly, from my experience within northeast Ohio, Model UN conferences often aren't taken particularly seriously, speeches often last only thirty seconds, and it doesn't take a lot beyond good improvisation to get awards for speaking. Congresspersons speak on various resolutions and bills which their school or another in the district has proposed in advance, and receive points valid at any NFL national headquarters (there's one) for free inclusion in your bag-o'-points. To
succeed in Congress requires thought, logical argumentation, and at least a modicum of research. Now, this isn't always the case, but Congress is a fairly serious (and, when properly executed, marvelously fun) enterprise.
Each Congress session is convened with approximately 20 speakers to a house. In my district, there is one Senate room and several (depending on how many have registered beforehand) House rooms. In each room, in addition to the speakers, is a parliamentarian and several judges. Judges rotate the duty of assigning scores from 1 to 6 to each speech, while the parliamentarian has the sometimes unlucky duty of maintaining order. Order is dictated not by dictatorial whim of the parliamentarian but
by a moderately modified form of Robert's Rules of Order. In my district, a Presiding Officer (PO) is elected by majority vote by the Senators or Representatives at the beginning of the day (the term refers to the first convention of the room). In order to give more than one person the
chance to practice presiding, one PO per session is elected. Sessions of Congress usually number two in my district, before and after dinner (practices are held at night). At the national tournament and in other areas, a PO is elected at the end of every session. The PO's job is to make sure the Parliamentarian doesn't have to do hers: to call on people who want to speak, to bang the gavel when necessary, and to act in a generally froody manner towards everyone to ensure that he shall be voted "Best PO" at the end of the session.
Legislation--proposed laws--are kind of like beachballs, and taking part in Student Congress is rougly analogous to playing a game of beach volleyball with these giant inflatable beachballs, except that you're trying to inflate the balls and score points simultaneously. It's a neat trick. Sadly, most of the legislation submitted in my district is in resolution form. A resolution has, if passed, the binding power of law (in this hypothetical Student Congress world), but it only makes suggestions. For example, a standard resolution might read:
1 WHEREAS, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 places an unfair burden on our constituents,
2 WHEREAS, the DMCA unjustifiably nullifies certain important liberties by nonsensically discarding due process, and,
3 WHEREAS, immoral things will come about from continued corporate use of the DMCA, therefore
4 BE IT RESOLVED by this Congress here established that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 should be repealed.
The problem with a resolution is that it only expresses the sentiments of the Congress; it is a "we should", not a "we will". Just like the real thing, Student Congress is plagued with pithy, ineffectual resolutions. Now a bill, on the other hand, is a real piece of law. A bill goes like this:
1 BE IT ENACTED by this Congress here established that
2 Section 1: The Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 is hereby repealed.
3 Section 2: A "Rights Protection Board" will be formed by this Congress.
4 Section 3: This Board shall be given the power to advise lawmakers of potential
5 risks to their citizens' rights.
6 Section 4: "Rights" shall be defined as those inherent liberties granted by
7 the Constitution and implied in subsequent laws.
8 Section 5: Any legislation conflicting with this bill is also hereby null and void.
How cool is that? So cool. Notice how a bill doesn't explain itself (some malformed bills I've seen include "Whereas" clauses; they are an exception and not the rule). A bill is in a form that is ready to be inserted into law books. There is more pressure on the author to explain it, but that just improves the audience's perception of the author's logic and wit (as he delivers a speech sponsoring the bill, he doesn't have to rehash what is already written in as part of his arguments). Bills are better. Usually.
Legislation is double-spaced, all lines are numbered, and it is limited in size to one page--however, there is no standard font size or line spacing, so abuse consequently sometimes occurs. Legislation is submitted one week in advance in my district (and conveniently, practice Congress sessions are held each week). Not all submitted legislation must be accepted. A few years ago someone at my school offered a bill which would legalize and, in fact, institutionalize prostitution; the subject matter alone risked censorship, but the fact that the agency which would handle employees unfortunately acronymmed to "The P.I.M.P. Service " (or, alternately, PIMPS) nearly resulted in his dismissal from the district. This student, a brilliant debater, has since gone on to college, where he founded his own religion and was later temporarily expelled.
Speeches are the lifeblood of any Congress. Any Congressperson who intends to garner precious NFL points or achieve the elusive status of First, Second, or Third in House will speak as much as she can--in my district. After a certain number of speeches--usually four--at the final tournament, judges
will stop assigning scores to that person's speeches. This is no incentive to start speaking poorly--at the end, each judge ranks the speakers from 1 to n (n being about 20), the scores are added, and the person with the lowest score gets a little certificate saying "1st Place, House 2" or something akin.
A speech lasts a maximum of three minutes. After three minutes, benevolent POs offer a few seconds' grace period, then start to bang the gavel as a sign that the speaker must now sit down and shut up. There is a special type of speech: the sponsorship or authorship speech (depending on whether or not
one is the author), is the first speech given in affirmation of a piece of legislation. After this speech comes a mandatory two-minute question-and-answer period designed to keep people from spouting drivel and getting away with it unchallenged. After the sponsorship speech, the PO asks for a speech in
negation, then affirmation, then negation again, continuing until someone mercifully moves to end debate. Generally if a speaker ends a "normal" speech before his three minutes are up, he yields the remainder of his time to questioning; not doing so gives the impression that he has something to hide.
However, it is best for a speaker to occupy his full three minutes, preferably with meaningful content.
Speakers are chosen by precedence and, often at the national level, recency. Rules of precedence dictate that if Senator Jeffords has given one speech in the current session, and Senator McCain has given two, and both of them wish to speak on Bill 6, the PO must call on Senator Jeffords. Sorry, John. Recency is trickier to keep track of; it is an idea (but unlike priority, it is not mandated by the rules of the Congress) that states that if Sen. J and Sen. M both want to
speak and both have two speeches, the PO looks to who has spoken first and preserve that order: Sen. M speaks before Sen. J, perhaps until the end of time or least the session.
Motions are the styrofoam packing peanuts that come with every box of Congress: you don't want them, but you need them to get the content you need undamaged. If you want a comprehensive list of motions, buy a copy of Robert's Rules. Here's a brief list of a few more useful ones, cannibalized from the handout Table of Frequently Used Parliamentary Motions (available free of charge to all Congresspeople in my district!)
- Adjourn: The Congresspeople all leave. Takes a simple majority vote. Before Congresspeople officially adjourn (sometimes never to reconvene, alas) they vote on who was the best PO in their house. The best PO gets a nifty gavel.
- Personal Privilege: A speaker asks the parliamenterian something. Usually used between speeches when one wants to head to the lavatory for a spell.
- Call for a Roll Call Vote: What congresspeople do when "Aye!" and "Nay!" clearly won't work. Roll call votes are mandatory for votes on legislation. Requires a 1/5 majority.
- Suspend the Rules: Lets you suspend the rules. Not all of them--just little ones like "speeches are three minutes long", Takes a 2/3 majority.
- Lay on the Table: This motion is one of the two most important for killing legislation you don't like; a simple majority lets you put legislation on an imaginary table; in my district, I have never
seen legislation be taken off the table, but have heard of it happening once.
- Take from the Table: Takes another simple majority, and does exactly what you'd expect--this motion reopens debate on a particular tabled piece of legislation. Kind of important.
- Previous Question: One of the most important motions you'll ever make, this 2/3-majority-required motion closes all debate on the issue at hand and forces a vote.
- Refer to a Committee: It is rarely but occasionally necessary to form a committee of a few Congresspersons who leave the room and go do committee work outside. The one time I have seen a committee used, it was reshaping three similar Israel bills into one (which we later voted down,
amusingly). A judge accompanies the committee, and committee work is scored as one speech.
- Amend: Amendments are tricky business. You need 1/3 of the room to second your amendment, and a second opens the motion to amend to debate. If you move to amend, you had better have a darned good reason, because the three-minute authorship speech is scored like any other. Previous Question
must be moved to end debate on an amendment; I've never seen one tabled, but it could be possible.
- The Main Motion is rather necessary; it is used to introduce the day's business--that is, to stop prattling about parliamentary procedure and start debating.
One "moves previous question" or "moves to amend". One never ever "motions". It's a semantic thing. Also, it is unnecessary to snigger when one Congressperson moves to lay on the table and another of opposite gender, not much later, moves to take from the table--everyone gets the "joke", but it was only funny the first few times.
One significant way in which Student Congress differs from what our good friend Robert intended: all calculations involving votes and majorities include only the people present. If you're in the bathroom when they vote to table your resolution and you're not there to defend it--no luck. 6 for, 12 against, and none abstaining is not a 1/3 majority; 7 for, 12 against, and none abstaining is. For that matter, 7 for, 12 against, and 2^64 abstaining constitutes a 1/3 majority, although it may take a while
to enumerate all the abstentions (since in such a close vote, a roll call would certainly be demanded).
Actually, there's some confusion within my district as to whether 6/18 is a 1/3 majority, or 7/18 is required. They always gave us examples using rooms of 17 people because they don't like to answer those hard questions.
Of course, there is more to life than the endless local practice tournaments. There is, at the end, a final Congress whose winners qualify for the state and national tournaments. Two or three lucky people in the Senate and one from each House will be eligible to go to the national NFL tournament. The state Congress in Ohio is a massive joke which no one attends--or so I'm told--but in theory several more people from the final Congress are invited to attend it.
Nationals is different from local Congress. It is taken much more seriously (but enjoyable if you're the right kind of person). A packet of about one hundred pieces of legislation, one picked from each district (and overwhelmingly comprised of bills) is FedExed to each contestant (partially explaining the one-time $10 NFL membership dues). Contestants are expected to have research on half this legislation, because the nation's districts are evenly split into Alpha and Omega Congresses. Most of the successful ones write three-minute speeches for each of them ahead of time. Some write two or three for each, on both sides of the issue. It is, at any rate, an excellent way to teach oneself duplicity, and it is funded by the United States government (cf. http://www.stennis.gov/studentcongress.html for
At the national Congress, instead of deciding which legislation will be spoken on in which order by voting for each piece in turn (you raise your hand if you want to hear a particular piece, in my district's version, and the highest-voted legislation goes first) a more civilized method is used.
Committees are formed; each of them is assigned a particular set of bills and told to rank them in order of importance, and those ranked number one in each committee are heard first, then number two, and so forth. Ironically, though some 50 pieces of legislation may have been part of a pretend lawmaker's research, only about 20 are actually debated--rendering 60% of their research (minus duplicates, of which there are generally a surprising number) useless.
The top six speakers from each House (and the top eight from each Senate room) go on to a semifinal Congress with its own set of predetermined legislation. A very few advance from each semifinal room into the ominous-sounding final round. Traditionally, almost everyone who serves as PO (there are four pre-semifinal sessions, so four POs) goes on to the semifinal round. Further, every PO gets a cool, shiny, hard wood gavel. It's neat.
There's an amusingly intense level of politicking for PO spots at nationals. For example, a de facto ban was recently enacted (via angry e-mail) on campaigning for PO via distributing gifts--people were handing out pens, pencils, lollipops prior to this anti-corruption measure.
As if that weren't abnormal enough, instead of being scored 1-6, national-level speeches are scored on a scale of 1 to 9--and the average score required to "break" to the semifinal round is usually between 7 and 8. There is incredible verbal and mental talent present in a national Congress session; it is a privilege to take part in one, and this privilege is one I hope I will be worthy of next year.
There is another national Congress tournament which is held nationally: the National Catholic Forensic League sponsors a national tournament as well; oddly enough, it is nicknamed "Catholics". It isn't necessary to be Catholic to participate, but you do need to have an affiliation with a local
diocesan league in order to be eligible to participate. Never having participated in this tournament, I don't know much about it. If you're looking for more information, try their web site: http://www.ncfl.org/
Amusing Anecdotes, or Why Congress is For You
Once I heard a Representative spend an entire three-minute speech negating a somewhat badly-worded sex education bill for the sole reason that "providing equal time for safe sex and abstinence in
the classroom means that in a 60 minute period, for 30 minutes the students will practice abstinence, and for the other 30 they'll be having safe sex." When we voted on the bill, there were suppressed giggles as the presiding officer asked, quite innocently, "All abstaining?". From the few abstentions, it was obvious to which half of our sex ed classes we had paid more attention...
In Student Congress, your votes don't matter and everything's made up. No, really. Whether or not your legislation passes in no way affects your chances of placing; it's how well you spoke on it.
Join Student Congress: the only legislative body where a bill telling the United States Postal Service to stop delivering mail on Thursdays will not be amended to say "Saturday", will spend an hour on the floor in debate, and will eventually get passed.
Join Student Congress, travel to exotic places, meet exciting people, be part of a legislative body that repeals the income tax (this amendment, the speakers told us, was passed as a joke in Congress, expressing a sort of "Get the rich guy!" sentiment that we'd never find in today's
corporate-sponsored Congress--it is said legislators were astounded when the states quickly ratified the amendment).
Only in Student Congress can you successfully compose an argument on the fly for a bill which someone at your school wrote (and for which you must now claim responsibility) that would attempt to enter the United States into the European Union. Only there can you be laughed at--and still win first in house. And only after such an experience can you experience a special sort of glee when you see "NATO Courts Russia" headlines and know that your analogy was right, after all.
Be one with the Congressional Body, and you can gain the bravado needed to interrupt boring classes with the occasional "Point of Order".
Note: offer only valid for current high school students in the United States. If you're a US resident and interested in helping out, but at or above college level, consider volunteering your time as a coach or judge. Congress is at least one coach's "favorite Speech and Debate event", and it could be yours too.
Table of Most Frequently Used Parliamentary Motions
, available from your local NFL-participating
school or online
2002 NFL Student Congress Manual
, available from the NFL or at
The John C. Stennis Center for Public Service's blurb, http://www.stennis.gov/studentcongress.html --They
a lot of money
to help pay for the National Congress tournament.