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Debating Counterplans


Introducing Counterplans

A counterplan is a plan advocated by the negative that is an alternative to the affirmative’s plan.  The most essential defining element of a counterplan is that it is competitive – the negative must prove that the counterplan is better than the affirmative plan and a combination of the plan and all or part of the counterplan.

For example, imagine that I suggest that we take a lunch break to go to McDonald’s. Going to McDonald’s is my plan.  You suggest that we should go to Burger King (BK) instead of going to McDonald’s.  You say it is better to go to BK than McDonald’s because BK has chicken fries.

If you demonstrate that it is better to go to BK because BK has chicken fries you have made it through the first hoop – you have proven that the counterplan is better than the plan.  What you have not proven, however, is that it wouldn’t be wise to go to both.  As the original advocate of going to McDonald’s, I’ll suggest a permutation – combining the affirmative plan with all or part of the counterplan – to go to McDonald’s and BK.  This captures the benefit of going to BK – to get the chicken fries – while still maintaining that we should go to McDonald’s. The permutation proves that going to BK isn’t a reason not to go to McDonald’s – or that the counterplan isn’t a reason to not support the affirmative’s plan.

You can prove that we need to do the counterplan instead of the plan in a couple of different ways.  First, you could prove that it is net-beneficial to only support the counterplan. This can be accomplished by proving that McDonald’s is bad and the overall benefits of going to BK outweigh the problems cause by going to McDonald’s.  Second, you could prove that doing them both will result in some disadvantage that demonstrates that it is unwise to try to do them together.

To prove that it is net-beneficial just to do the counterplan, you could, for example,  argue that the McDonald’s I suggest going to is in a bad neighborhood and eating at McDonald’s therefore will increase the risk that you will be robbed or shot.  Going to BK – even if you can’t get a great McDonald’s salad there – will still be net-beneficial because the threat to your personal safety outweighs the benefits of eating a salad at MacDonald’s.

You could also prove that doing both – the permutation – is a bad idea.  For example, you could argue that if we did both we would spend too much money, leaving an inadequate amount of money to buy some ice cream. Or, you could argue that if we tried to go to both in the amount of time we had available for lunch that it would increase the risks that would be involved in a car crash.

The other way to prove your counterplan is competitive is to prove that it is mutually exclusive. To do this you need to prove that you can’t do both the counterplan and the plan. It is a hard thing to prove – rarely are two courses of action mutually exclusive.  But, it is possible to imagine mutually exclusive courses of action. The affirmative could, for example, could require more regulations on school speech.  The negative could abolish all school speech regulations.

Of course, if you prove the counterplan is mutually exclusive with the affirmative plan, you must still prove that it is net beneficial – that the benefits of acting on the counterplan outweigh the benefits of acting on the plan.

Proving that a counterplan is competitive – by either proving that it is net-beneficial or mutually exclusive and then net-beneficial – is a process that occurs throughout the debate and doesn’t depend on a single argument.  When arguing that a judge should vote for a counterplan, you are arguing that overall it is a good idea compared to the plan.

A Sample Counterplan

On the education topic, many teams will argue that the state governments rather than the federal government should implement the non-federal mandates of the plan.

[Sample] Text: The United States federal government should grant decision making and funding power over school choice programs to the states. The fifty state governments of the United States should substantially increase funding for school choice for K-12 schools.

Net-benefit: Avoids the disadvantages to increasing the federal deficit and any other disadvantages based on federal action.

This is a general solvency card they might read —

Kevin D. Roberts, 17 – Ph.D., longtime educator who is Executive Vice President of the Texas Public Policy Foundation in Austin (2/7, “States, Not the Feds, Should Lead Education Reform.”

The era of Donald Trump offers conservative reformers opportunities they have not seen since the 1980s. The most significant are in education, where the federal government has aggrandized its power, rendering states impotent. This overreach comes at the expense of two things very dear to the nation—our schoolchildren and our understanding of shared powerThough the Trump administration will no doubt address the former problem, its means of doing so may very well exacerbate the latter. Too often, well-intentioned, conservative executives end up using federal power to heal the wounds caused by the very same bludgeon—federal power. If President Trump is correct in his inaugural exhortation that “now is the hour of action,” then states—not federal bureaucrats—need to lead the charge on education policyAmong the many problems facing American education, the most significant may be our schools’ and colleges’ utter failure to teach civic education. Two generations of American students have been taught precious little about the American Founding or the Constitution, let alone the philosophical foundation of the American system of government—federalism. That notion of shared power between the federal government and states has, as a result, withered. How fitting, then, that Texas—where the American spirit of independence, work ethic, freedom and a vibrant notion of state power is palpable—take the lead in renewing federalism. And how fitting that it do so in the policy area where revitalized state power is most needed: education. During the otherwise-bleak years of the previous administration, the Lone Star State has shined as a beacon of liberty, deregulation and restrained government authority. Harkening to Justice Louis Brandeis’s early-20th-century comment that “states are the laboratories of democracy,” Texas-based initiatives have sprouted across the nation. It’s no Texan braggadocio to observe that nationwide, efforts in tort reform, deregulation, tax reduction and criminal justice reform originated in Texas. The resulting “Texas Model” has become the blueprint for leaders in dozens of states. And that is precisely how our system should work. Though we are all familiar with the legitimate claims based on state sovereignty and the Tenth Amendment, our Founders viewed those as mere baseline expectations. In the realm of public policy, they saw the states as taking the initiative, being so bold and innovative that the federal government would have to serve as a check on them—not the other way around, as the case has been in recent years. As the Obama administration would be the first to say, Texas has led those efforts to check federal power. That defensive posture was necessary—and, for the Republic, crucial. But now Texas and other states must seize the field of education policy, exercising their own power with bold policy initiatives. The timing for Texas policymakers is perfect. The state’s biennial legislative session has just begun, and the momentum for an education overhaul has never been stronger. At the National School Choice Week rally earlier this week, both Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick gave rousing, full-throated endorsements of school choice reforms. There are obstacles, to be sure, but even the defenders of the status quo recognize that it’s hard to defend the mediocrity of the status quo. Among the many school choice vehicles, the most far-reaching—for Texas and the United States—is an Education Savings Account (ESA). Built on the successes of early choice vehicles such as tax-credit scholarships, ESAs offer wider and easier usage, removing the barriers to access that have been foisted on choice programs by opponents. Parents may use an ESA to pay for a host of education-related expenses, including private school tuition, tutoring, special needs programs and books. In sum, an ESA gives parents an unprecedented means for customizing their child’s education—the exact opposite of the conveyor-belt, cookie-cutter approach that has become modern American education. Though some reformers have advocated for federal ESAs, the inefficiency inherent in the large federal bureaucracy begs for states to take the lead. Texas, the most populous state with a bent toward conservative, free-market reforms, has a unique opportunity to show that states, as our Founders expected, can be at the forefront of policy innovation. There could not be more at stake. Our children deserve an end to zip-code discrimination, which dramatically limits their access to decent educational options. Furthermore, the civic health of our American Republic—in particular, the long-standing view that states, not the feds, would lead—hangs in the balance If there ever was a time for all Americans to summon the Spirit of 1836—the year of the Texas Revolution—now would be the time.



Counterplan Competition

The basics of counterplan competition have been covered in the introductory section of this chapter.  Two things are worth emphasizing.  One, in order to win that a counterplan is better than the plan you have to win that it is net-beneficial to do only the counterplan as compared to the plan and a combination of all of the plan and part of the counterplan. Counterplan competition is fundamental – No judge will accept a counterplan unless the judge determines that it is competitive.


Answering Counterplans

There are three basic ways to defeat a counterplan. First, you can argue that it is net-beneficial to vote for the plan rather than the counterplan.  Second, you can argue that the counterplan is not a competitive alternative to the affirmative’s plan – that both could and should be done.  Third, you can argue that the type of counterplan that the negative has presented is theoretically illegitimate.  You can do all three of these, but any single approach, if successful, will defeat the counterplan.

Attack the counterplan solvency.  In attacking the solvency of the counterplan, you want to argue that the counterplan will not solve for the affirmative’s case advantage(s).  Often, the counterplan will clearly solve one or more of the advantages, but not other advantages(s).  If the counterplan obviously doesn’t solve one of the advantages, point that out and then make as many arguments as you can as to why it doesn’t solve the others.  Your arguments do not need to be complete – you do not need to win that it will not solve the advantages at all.  If you can reduce the solvency some, you should be able to argue that voting affirmative is net-beneficial because it the remaining amount of affirmative advantage that the counterplan doesn’t solve for outweighs the negative’s disadvantage that doesn’t link to the counterplan.

It is important in the 2AC that you keep in mind what advantage(s) the counterplan doesn’t solve, or at least doesn’t solve very well when allocating your time covering the negative’s case arguments.  You want to focus on extending the advantage(s) the counterplan doesn’t solve very well because it is those that you’ll certainly need to win by the end of the debate.

Present disadvantages to the counterplan. You should try to find arguments that link to the counterplan.  For example, if the counterplan spends money and your plan does not you could run a spending disadvantage to the counterplan.

You always need to be careful that the disadvantages that you run against the counterplan do not link to your own affirmative plan.  If you run disadvantages to the counterplan that also link to the plan, and you the negative then decides to jettison the counterplan, you may be in trouble because the negative will argue that those disadvantages link to your plan – and now only to your plan.

Test the competitiveness of the counterplan.  You test the competitiveness of the counterplan through what is called a permutation.  You should always make at least two permutations. First, make a permutation that simply says “do both.”  This will protect you at the end of the debate in the event that the negative does not end up winning that the counterplan is net-beneficial.  In this instance, you can easily argue that the judge should simply vote to “do both.”  If you do not, the negative may argue that although their counterplan isn’t net-beneficial, it is still simply better than the affirmative plan and try to win on that since you have no permutation.

Second, you should write a permutation that includes all of the plan and all or part of the counterplan that combines the two in a way that prevents one or more of the disadvantages that the negative has argued from happening.   For example, if the affirmative plan is to have the federal government increase transportation infrastructure investment, and the plan doesn’t specify that the federal government intransportation in pays for it, and the negative runs a states counterplan with a spending disadvantage, your permutation could be to have the federal government implement the program and to have the states pay for it.

Argue that the counterplan is theoretically illegitimate.  As will be discussed in the last section of this chapter, there are a number of theoretical controversies regarding counterplans.  Affirmatives can make arguments that each of the type of counterplans discussed above are theoretically illegitimate, that the negative couldn’t be able to get rid of the counterplan if they wish, and the counterplan has to either be topical or non-topical.

There is always some theory argument that can be made against counterplans. You should argue make at least some theory arguments in the 2AC because this will force the negative to spend a lot of time on these arguments in the 2NC or the 1NR since they are all or nothing arguments for the negative.  If the affirmative wins one of these arguments then the negative will at least lose the option of extending the counterplan, and may even lose the debate.

Extending a Counterplan on the Negative

When you extend a counterplan on the negative, regardless as to the type of counterplan that you run, there is one primary goal that you have to keep in mind – you have to prove that the counterplan is better than the plan or a combination of the plan and any or all of the counterplan.  Every argument you make has to be made with that idea in mind.

You should start by giving an overview of the counterplan. In your overview you should establish the following:

A)    Specifically what the counterplan does.  Often, counterplans are read very quickly in the 1NC and it is difficult for both the judge and the opposing team to make out precisely what the counterplan does.  The affirmative may have used preparation time to figure out exactly what it does, but the judge is probably still left in the dark.  Take a few seconds to explain your counterplan.

B)    Explain if and why the counterplan solves. If you are arguing that the counterplan solves some or all of the affirmative case harms, explain why the counterplan solves each of the harms that you are claiming it solves.

C)    Explain why it is net-beneficial to vote for the counterplan.  Be willing to acknowledge that the counterplan may not solve for some or all of the affirmative advantage(s), but argue that it is still net-beneficial because the counterplan avoids X or Y disadvantages that have a greater impact or chance of occurring than the harms identified in the 1AC.

After giving this overview, proceed through the line by line of the 2AC counterplan answers.

It is very important that you keep in mind that a counterplan is just one tool in your overall strategy.  You need to win that the counterplan is net-beneficial, not that it is some inherently good idea.

To win that the counterplan is net-beneficial at the end of the debate, you’ll need to make sure you spend time covering the disadvantage that you say the counterplan avoids and make sure you devote considerable time to answering any affirmative harms that the counterplan may not be able to solve for.  You must allocate your time well to win a counterplan debate, dividing it between the counterplan flow itself, any disadvantage(s) that you wish to argue the counterplan avoids, and any defensive arguments that you’ll need to win on the case flow if your counterplan is unlikely to solve all, or some, of the affirmative case harms.

Deciding When to Run a Counterplan

Counterplans are very popular in debate. At the varsity level of competition, it is almost assumed that the negative will at least advance a counterplan in the 1NC, even if they chose not to go for it as part of a winning strategy in the 2NR.

The popularity of the counterplan is somewhat self-fulfilling – counterplans are advanced frequently in modern debate because people know a lot about counterplans and people are always thinking in terms of counterplan options when devising negative strategies.

Counterplans are also popular because they are valuable strategic weapons for the negative.  As the discussion of the various types of counterplans makes clear, most counterplans claim to solve all or at least most of the affirmative harms without forcing the negative to engage in a debate about the truth of each of those harms claims.

While it is true that counterplans are strategic weapons, they are also strategic hinderances. Negative teams may be forced to forgo arguing particular disadvantages because those disadvantages also link to the counterplan.  Different types of counterplans are often theoretically questionable, so the negative may lose the debate because they either have to spend too much time in their speeches on those theory questions or because they may lose the theory debate.  Counterplans are also more complicated than many other arguments, and inexperienced debaters may simply not be able to keep track of all of the different arguments made in counterplan debates.