Author: Carly Watson
The season is coming to a close but the era of the process counterplan rages on. Whether it’s because the topics are too big, the counterplans are too good, or the negative ground is too bad, the process counterplan is running rampant in high school and college debate. In an SDI webinar, we predicted that the end of season tournaments would accelerate the process counterplan and y’all didn’t let us down. Some huge debates were decided on process counterplans and competition.
I’m here today to tell you the one argument the affirmative needs to put an end to the era of the process counterplan. How do I know that it can work? I’ve seen it happen before.
Before deep diving through some random history and explaining the argument that destroys process counterplans, what do I even mean by process counterplans? There’s lots of different definitions and understandings but I liked the way Tyler Thur described it:
“Process counterplans agree with the desirability of the affirmative’s outcome (e.g. ending arms sales to Saudi Arabia) but propose an alternative way of achieving that desired policy (e.g. asking NATO if they want the United States to end arms sales to Saudi Arabia before ending them).”
There are a variety of examples but process counterplans result in implementation of the plan. Some other prominent examples:
- The states should threaten to not enforce federal policies unless the federal government does the plan
- The plan should only be done if a public referendum votes in favor of the plan
- The plan should be proposed to a commission and only happen if the commission agrees that the plan is good
- Congress should make it illegal for the president to not do the plan
All of these counterplans ultimately say that the plan should/will be implemented through the process of the counterplan. There are a variety of net benefits but all of these examples include internal net benefits (advantages to the counterplan process as opposed to intrinsic disadvantages to the plan). If I’ve lost you on some of this, there’s a short counterplan seminar I did for the SDI here that explains a little more about net benefits and competition. If you’re with me so far, let’s talk about some debate history.
A Brief History Lesson on the Consult Counterplan
There are always trends in debate and argument popularity ebbs and flows. As arguments come and go, there is commonly a series of fights about them on the internet. Don’t believe me? There was once a time when there were hundreds of eDebate posts about ASPEC. I debated for MSU from 2006 to 2010 so the ASPEC fight was before my time (thankfully) but I was debating right at the tail end of the consult counterplan’s apex. I was watching college debates as a high schooler when the consult counterplan was dominating big debates but debating in college at a time when the success of the consult counterplan plummeted. What changed? The “lie perm.”
Consult counterplans are a type of process counterplan that argue that before doing the plan, another entity should be given veto power over the plan. They’re more common on international topics but, for example, if the affirmative was a nuclear no first use (NFU) aff, the negative might read the consult Japan counterplan – before issuing an NFU, the US should consult with Japan over whether the plan should be done. The negative would argue that the process of the counterplan avoids disrupting assurance signaling toward Japan.
To keep this article to a reasonable length, I’m not going to fully unpack every possible issue with the consult counterplan but Dr. Ryan Galloway has a great post here that really explains a lot about the competition debate that occurred over the consult counterplan if you’re interested in an immersive experience. Tl;dr the consult counterplan primarily competed based on two arguments:
- Immediacy – The plan happens immediately but the counterplan initiates a process that takes time. Any permutation must include the plan immediately happening or it severs the immediacy of the plan.
- Certainty – The plan must happen but the process of the counterplan has an uncertain outcome (e.g. Japan could reject the plan). Any permutation must include the plan’s definite implementation or it severs the certainty of the plan.
I’ve not run a statistical analysis of the community sentiment here but I think, between the two arguments, judges were much more persuaded by the need for certainty rather than immediacy. Requiring that the plan happen is pretty foundational to negative ground and all the impacts that severance is built to protect. Immediacy is a little bit trickier. Competing only on certainty is….fraught. The delay counterplan genre (e.g. do the plan but only after the politics scenario passes) has been pretty roundly rejected by community. A series of debates where the affirmative’s sole offense against a counterplan is based on short-term implementation isn’t a road to fair or educational debates.
In addition to severance arguments, the negative commonly made the argument that the permutations didn’t solve the net benefit to the counterplan because consultation must be “genuine.” The argument was that if the outcome of the consultation was known (e.g. the plan was certain) it wouldn’t generate the same upsides through consultation. In the Japan example, the negative would argue that, because the NFU was a guaranteed outcome, any permutation that didn’t sever certain/immediate implementation of an NFU wouldn’t successfully assure Japan because they would see that the US was going to do an NFU inevitably.
What’s the argument that changed everything? The lie perm. The lie perm said, consult and do the plan no matter what. So, in the Japan/NFU example, the affirmative would say “consult Japan and do the plan no matter what.” It was dubbed the “lie perm” because essentially the perm would require lying to Japan about the process. The US would consult Japan and then, regardless of whether Japan said to do the plan, the plan would happen. Because the negative is (almost) always saying that Japan will “say yes” to the plan, Japan never knows that the perm outcome was certain.
The lie perm avoids the most persuasive negative arguments about severance. Implementation of the plan is certain with the lie perm because the plan happens no matter what. The permutation still arguably severs “immediacy” but the affirmative can impact turn competing on immediacy alone. I wouldn’t want to be the negative defending an interpretation of competition that allowed for the “do the plan a day later” counterplan.
In addition, there’s a strong counter-argument that, because the process of the plan’s implementation is begun immediately, it doesn’t sever immediacy any more than allowing for normal means implementation of the plan would. What do I mean by this? Having an interpretation of “immediate implementation” for the affirmative that is completely divorced from reality is also routinely dismissed as ridiculous by judges. For example, if a debate were to occur on the day of a presidential election, most judges don’t think that “immediate implementation” means that the Congress/the President/the government just stops everything they’re doing to pass the plan. That requirement for “immediacy” would be so radically divorced from reality that it would put the affirmative in too tough of a spot. “Normal means” is meant to have a certain amount of reasonableness to it. If the permutation’s process is initiated immediately and the announcement of full implementation occurs in a reasonable time, it’s hard to see much difference between that and other norms we’ve already accepted in debate (e.g. Court decisions are announced in June).
The lie perm was devastating to the consult counterplan as it declined in popularity/success. The lie perm avoided the strongest competition arguments (certainty) and is designed to impact turn the weakest competition arguments (immediacy). The consult counterplan lives on – lots of you have probably debated it – but it’s gone the way of ASPEC. Most judged feel like if the affirmative makes the right answers, it’s not a good option for the 2NR. I think of these arguments in debate as “pass/fail tests.” Did the team make the right five arguments? They’re probably going to win in an evenly matched debate. Could the negative still roll someone on the consult counterplan or ASPEC? Of course. However, it’s the exception to the rule and it’s usually in debates with a large skill differential or just the right judge spot.
Process Counterplans: The Consult Counterplan of 2021
So where does that (not so) brief history of the consult counterplan leave us in a world of process counterplans? In need of a strong defense of the modern day “lie perm.” This is most commonly phrased in current debates as something like “do the plan as a result of the counterplan’s process” or “do the counterplan process and the plan no matter what.” I would argue that this permutation – the modern day lie perm – has the potential to accelerate the decline of the process counterplan the same way that the original lie perm eviscerated the consult counterplan’s win percentage.
Process counterplans have all of the same markers for vulnerability as the consult counterplan – they compete on immediacy/certainty and many of the net benefits are entirely internal to the process of the counterplan. The “lie perm” against these process counterplans sets the affirmative up to do exactly what they were doing so successfully against the consult counterplan – avoid the strongest competition arguments, impact turn the weaker competition arguments, and win.
Let’s play out some of a hypothetical debate round with this permutation:
- 1AC: The USFG should regulate offshore wind to protect water resources.
- 1NC: The USFG should establish a climate commission and submit the plan for review. If the commission determines that the plan doesn’t worsen climate change, the plan happens. The counterplan’s process establishes a precedent of commission review and authority to ensure action against climate change in environmental policy.
- 2AC: Perm – do the plan as a result of the counterplan’s process (The USFG should establish a climate commission and submit the plan for review. The USFG should regulate offshore wind to protect water resources.)
- Severs immediacy and certainty (defines should, resolved, substantial, etc.)
- Doesn’t solve the net benefit – the perm doesn’t really give the commission power over the plan
- Doesn’t sever certainty – the implementation of the plan is guaranteed
- Doesn’t sever immediacy –
- The process of implementation is immediate
- Counterdefines “immediacy” words to not require immediacy
- To the extent that the perm severs immediacy, we’re impact turning counterplan competition that is only contrived based on immediacy
- It does solve the net benefit – 1) the neg read “say yes” evidence 2) the outcome of the perm’s process isn’t known 3) the net benefit is based on establishment and authority of the commission, the perm does that
This debate isn’t going super well for the negative based on the history of the consult counterplan’s demise. Could the negative win? Absolutely. Could the affirmative drop important arguments due to coverage? For sure. In an evenly matched debate, does (recent-ish) history suggest that the negative is in the weeds? Also yes.
I’m sure there are folks that will disagree with my historical take (“well actually, the Brad Hall card ended the consult counterplan…”) or my thoughts on competition. For example, one common refrain from the negative is that “all counterplans could result in the affirmative so allowing this perm destroys all counterplans with follow-on arguments.” I might do an entire second part with more backline defenses of the perm but this argument doesn’t apply to all counterplans with follow-on arguments. This perm is an argument specific to the way that the counterplan’s process engineers and modifies normal means.
I’m sure it’s not actually a TKO but history can be informative on where to go with arguments from here. Despite its popularity (infamy?), the “intrinsic perm” (e.g. “do the plan and consult Japan on something else” or “do the plan and establish climate review on the infrastructure bill”) hasn’t met with much success. The “lie perm” has a history of eviscerating process counterplans. How do I know that it can work? I’ve seen it happen before.