Chapter 12

The Counterplan


What is a counterplan?

The resolution divides the terrain of argument between Affirmative and Negative teams. The Affirmative is committed to supporting the resolution; the Negative is free to defend any policy that is not the resolution. Usually, the Negative team will choose to defending the status quo as the alternative policy. But sometimes, it may be more advantageous to admit that the present system isn’t working — agreeing, to an extent, with the Affirmative — and to suggest a third course of action: the counterplan.

Each year, more and more Negative teams are taking the counterplan option. At the same time, more judges are becoming familiar with counterplan theory and are competent to judge a counterplan debate. Since Michigan debate is quite conservative, the acceptance of counterplans as a legitimate strategy is growing slowly, but Negative debaters should not fear that they will be misunderstood if they choose to run a counterplan.

As we will see, throwing a counterplan into the debate shifts speaker duties considerably. The teams still have the same burdens as they had before the counterplan, but which speaker covers which tasks is very different. Many Negative teams win with a counterplan because their Affirmative opponents are thrown off balance by the new duties. On the other hand, many Negatives who present counterplans are poorly equipped to handle an Affirmative team who is prepared for the counterplan approach.

A counterplan must be presented in the First Negative Constructive; delaying it to 2NC would leave 1NC with no effective arguments to present, and fairness requires that the Affirmative team be given a Constructive speech to oppose the counterplan.

In form, the counterplan is very much like an Affirmative plan: it is very specific, with substructured planks accounting for mandates, finance, and any other functions that the Negative wants to include. The Negative will also present their own case analysis, suggesting the advantages that the counterplan will produce.

The need for detail means that counterplans must be created well in advance in anticipation of a particular kind of Affirmative case. Indeed, a Negative team may have prepared a file of several counterplans, allowing them to select the most applicable one for a wide variety of cases. The First Negative Constructive will thus be partly scripted, and partly extemporized, for 1NC must still grapple with the specific Affirmative arguments.

Additionally, the Negative may choose to combine a counterplan with other standard responses. Of course, it is not always reasonable for the Negative to introduce a counterplan (thereby admitting the flaws of the status quo) and then deny all the Affirmative’s harm and inherency analysis by claiming that the status quo can solve all the problems. On the other hand, it is possible (though complicated), when faced with several advantages in a case, for the Negative to propose a counterplan against some of the advantages and use standard refutation against some others.

A legitimate counterplan has to meet three requirements: it must be nontopical; it must be competitive with the Affirmative plan, meaning that both plan and counterplan cannot exist at the same time; and it must be superior to the Affirmative plan, producing greater advantages overall.


Why must the counterplan be nontopical?

Since the resolution divides turf, the Negative can do anything except what the resolution specifies. If the Negative proposed a topical counterplan, then both teams would be saying that the resolution would produce beneficial effects — though they might disagree strongly as to what those good effects would be. Since both teams are supporting the resolution, the judge will vote for the Affirmative team, since those partners officially represent the resolution.

Moreover, the counterplan must be nontopical by the Affirmative team’s definition of terms from 1AC. The Affirmative’s definitions further divide the topic area by specifying what approaches are topical and which are not. Even operational definitions show what (in the Affirmative’s viewpoint) is topical, by the example of the Affirmative plan. The Negative accepts these definitions when counterplanning, in effect saying, "Under this division of the topic area, our policy is superior." Similarly, the Affirmative cannot propose alternative definitions in 2AC which would rule out the counterplan already introduced; they must stick by those definitions already presented.

This means that it is almost impossible for the Negative to both run a counterplan and mount a topicality challenge in the same round.

Some debaters suggest this strategy to combine the two: let the Negative argue that the Affirmative plan is nontopical, and then counterplan with the Affirmative plan! Such an approach is very hard to win. The Affirmative would argue that their plan is reasonably topical, and that the Negative was supporting the topic by advocating the plan-counterplan. Additionally, the Negative team can’t argue that their policy is superior to the Affirmative plan (since they are identical), and they can’t present any PMAs or D-As. If the Negative wins, that means they must have proven the Affirmative plan to be nontopical, so they could have won the debate on a nontopicality challenge alone, rather than confuse the issue with a counterplan. Avoid this tactic if you are Negative.


How does the Negative create a nontopical counterplan?

There are three techniques that regularly appear from year to year. Each can be defended as making the counterplan nontopical. They can also be combined, so the Negative may have two claims to nontopicality — perhaps both a counteragent and a counterpolicy.

COUNTERAGENT. Usually the resolution proposes that the federal government initiate change. In a counteragent counterplan, the Negative obliges some other authority to take action instead: state or municipal governments, or a larger governing body, such as the United Nations, or a private sector business or interest group.

The Negative has limited fiat power when proposing a counterplan. While they can mandate action by governmental bodies, they have no power to force private sector agencies — corporations, labor unions, etc. — to take action to advance the counterplan. Of course, the Negative could have the government pass laws requiring private sector industries take certain actions, but that may make the plan topical.

Also, remember that the federal government has at least three parts: the Congress, the executive branch of the Presidency, and the federal judiciary. Most people would agree that the national independent regulatory commissions, such as the FCC, are units of the federal government as well. The Negative cannot manipulate any of these if they wish to promote a counteragent plan.

COUNTERPROCESS. This involves a different means of putting the plan or counterplan into effect. Most resolutions, especially result-oriented ones, contain a verb such as "establish," "implement," or "adopt." The Negative counterplan would not take action directly — instead, it may propose to study the problem area before taking action, or to put a plan into place only if a national referendum approves it. Many Negative teams try using the entire Affirmative plan as their counterplan, but delaying or diverting implementation by the counterprocess.

Overall, this is a weak strategy. The study counterplan is usually based on the Negative’s argument that all current studies of the problem area are flawed. Affirmatives will respond that this is an artificial strategy to avoid making a decision, and that it is unreasonable to balance the Affirmative’s limited debating time against the resources of an unlimited study panel. They will probably persuade the judge that sufficient evidence exists to support preliminary acceptance of Affirmative harm, inherency, and solvency arguments, and that a study could take place after the Affirmative plan was adopted, allowing for later revisions if the policy was not working perfectly. The referendum ploy invites the Affirmatives to argue that — given the harms shown in the case — of course the voters will vote "yes" to implement the plan.

COUNTERPOLICY. This is probably the strongest approach: the Negative takes some sort of action other than that mandated by the resolution. Thus, if the proposition called on the federal government to "reduce inflation," the Negative could take action designed to increase inflation, or to reduce poverty, or to improve worker productivity, or any of a number of actions.


Why is the counterplan required to be competitive?

The counterplan must be a reason to reject the resolution. The Negative must prove that the benefits of the plan and the counterplan cannot exist at the same time. This requirement of competitiveness is perhaps the least understood part of counterplan theory.

The judge, faced with two alternatives to the status quo, is in a position akin to that of a legislator presented with two bills, either of which could potentially become law. The hypothetical congressperson is a rational, well-meaning individual, who wants to pass laws that will produce the most good. He could vote in favor of either bill, and reject the other; or he could try to find a way in which the two bills could be merged into one law, gaining all the advantages of both.

The same standard applies to debate. A rule called permutation theory allows the judge to see if the Affirmative plan and Negative counterplan can be merged into one unified proposal in order to gain the advantages claimed by both teams. If this is possible, then the Affirmative will win the debate. This is because the unified policy will contain the Affirmative plan as a subset, and thus will put the resolution into effect. Since the Affirmative has therefore proved that the resolution is worth implementing, they must win. Therefore, the Negative must argue that the two proposals cannot exist at the same time, to avoid the dangers of permutation and the Affirmative victory it assures.

There are five common tactics that the Negative can use to prove that the plan and counterplan are unable to exist together. Not all are equally convincing. In order of the strongest to the weakest, these techniques are:

MUTUAL EXCLUSIVITY. The two policies cannot exist at the same time for structural reasons. Perhaps the Affirmative plan mandates action by the federal government, while the Negative counterplan abolishes the federal government. Or perhaps one policy wants to strengthen our commitment to NATO, while the other wishes to remove the U.S. from NATO. The key to establishing mutual exclusivity is to show that the two proposals are opposite in their intentions.

Some Negative teams try to sneak around the competitiveness requirement by specifically outlawing the Affirmative plan. This is an abuse of the mutual exclusivity argument. There must be some rationale presented as to why the counterplan should reject the resolution. In essence, the counterplan must justify denying the resolution, much as the topicality justification arguments of the last chapter claim that the plan must justify adopting the resolution.

NET BENEFITS or DISADVANTAGEOUS DOUBLE ADOPTION. The Negative here argues that, while both policies could conceivably be passed into law at the same time, the Negative counterplan is preferable to the joint policy.

Let’s look at an example used in the booklet Understanding the Counterplan by Walter Ulrich (1986; Kansas City: National Federation of State High School Associations). The resolution requires changes in the educational system. One Affirmative plan would ban driver’s education classes for high school students, arguing that students in those classes are permitted to get their drivers’ licenses at an earlier age, but their immaturity leads to an increased number of accidents. The Negative counterplan in response was to raise the driving age. The Negative argued that this also kept students off the road until they were mature (thus restraining the accident rate), and at the same time retained the educational benefits of driver’s education classes (which the Affirmative would ban). The Negative thus showed that double adoption of both plan and counterplan was less desirable than the counterplan by itself.

More commonly, Negatives demonstrate net benefits by showing a disadvantage that derives from the Affirmative plan and would persist under a combined plan; only by adopting the counterplan alone could the disadvantage be avoided.

RESOURCE COMPETITIVENESS. This approach argues that both policies require the same limited factors: money, personnel, medical facilities, or whatever (the specifics will depend on the case and the resolution). There’s not enough of this resource, says the Negative, to enable both the Affirmative and Negative plans, and therefore they cannot operate at the same time.

Some Negatives try to make their counterplan artificially competitive by using the same funding methods as the Affirmative plan, thus claiming resource competitiveness. Affirmatives should not allow the Negative to get away with this. If the Affirmative can prove the federal government has other financing methods which would allow sufficient money for both plans, permutation theory will allow a joint policy to exist.

PHILOSOPHICAL COMPETITION. The Negative argues that the two policies are philosophically opposed (though perhaps not contradictory), and thus should not be adopted simultaneously. This is a fairly weak argument, since the government often supports policies that are inconsistent with each other; for example, the federal government may host a conference on international disarmament at the same time new nuclear weapons are being manufactured. Generally, the results of the policies, and not their underlying rationale, are more important when determining competitiveness.

REDUNDANCY. There is no reason to adopt both policies, the Negative claims, because they each target the same problem. This position argues that duplicative efforts to solve a single problem are wasteful and inefficient. This, too, is a weak argument. We can never be certain beforehand that any government program will work perfectly well, the Affirmative will reply, so it may be useful to have a backup program to make sure the problem is solved completely. Instead of being wasteful, redundancy may be desirable. The parallels with everyday life make this argument compelling for the Affirmative: that’s why some cars have airbags, seat belts, and padded dashboards — they are all redundant features designed to minimize damage to passengers if the vehicle is involved in a collision.


Why must the counterplan be superior to the Affirmative plan?

To answer this question, we must ask: what happens to presumption when the Negative abandons the status quo and suggests a counterplan? As you will recall from earlier chapters, presumption says that the status quo, while not perfect, is at least familiar — and therefore the Affirmative must show that their plan will be significantly better than the status quo before they may win.

Debate theorists disagree as to what happens when the Negative abandons the status quo. There are three views of what happens to presumption when the Negative turns to a counterplan:

NEGATIVE LOSES PRESUMPTION. Since the Negative abandons the status quo, the policy that has been before the judge the longest gains presumption — and that is the Affirmative plan. The Negative must prove that their counterplan is significantly better than the Affirmative plan in order to win. Analogies with government procedures seem to affirm this rule. In Congress, for example, the counterpart of a counterplan would be an amendment to a motion; the amendment passes only if the majority of congresspeople think that it would be preferable to the original motion. In the courtroom, the defendant can plead extenuating circumstances (insanity, self-defense) to avoid being convicted for an act he has committed — but the burden of proof then shifts to the defendant, who must prove that these unusual circumstances existed at the time of the crime. By analogy, then, the Negative takes up a burden of proof to show that their counterplan is preferable to the plan. The majority of judges probably adhere to this viewpoint, but most are willing to hear argument on one side or the other of the issue.

NEGATIVE RETAINS PRESUMPTION. Some debate theorists say that presumption must always be against the resolution, regardless of the Negative’s strategy. The burden of proof is not something that can shifted from side to side like a volleyball. By this reasoning, the Negative need only show that their proposal is just as good as, not necessarily better than, the Affirmative’s plan.

THE LESS RISKY POLICY GAINS PRESUMPTION. Presumption is a measure of risk. It favors the status quo initially because the hazards and problems of the present system are reasonably well-known, compared to the uncertainties of the Affirmative plan. Therefore, some theorists hold that when a counterplan enters the debate, presumption flows to the policy which has the least amount of risk naturally involved. There is no certain way to assign which plan has the less natural risk. Some suggested guidelines indicate that a proposal is less risky when: (1) it makes a minor change; (2) it alters an unimportant policy; (3) it uses a level of government closer to the individual citizen; (4) it is easily reversible if unexpected problems arise later; and (5) it has considerable reliable evidence in support. Depending on the proposals introduced in the round, then, the judge following this line of reasoning may assign presumption to either team, and thus require the opposing team to prove their policy is the better one.

What does this mean for Negative teams? First, you may prefer to argue that your side retains presumption when you introduce a counterplan, either because your proposal is less risky, or because the Negative always retain presumption. At the same time, you will want to persuade the judge that your proposal is better than, not merely as good as, the Affirmative plan; so, even if you lose the theoretical argument on presumption, you still may win the debate by proving that the plan is inferior to the counterplan.


What sort of advantages does the Negative propose?

The Negative has pretty much a free hand at choosing what advantages if will sponsor. Since they are not handicapped by the resolution, counterplan advantages can range far beyond the topic area.

Many Negatives believe that they must solve the Affirmative harms in order to win. That is not the case. If the Negative advantages include the Affirmative advantages as a subset, of course, it is easier to see that the counterplan is superior to the plan; this is called capturing the Affirmative advantage. But the Negative can also win by ignoring the Affirmative’s case analysis to a good degree and solving bigger harms for more people elsewhere.

But, you may wonder, what is to prevent Negatives solving some massive harm which is not relevant to the topic area, and then winning because they have the bigger advantage? Perhaps the Negatives will end world hunger, saving millions of lives each year. Regardless of the resolution being debated, few Affirmatives would be able to match that advantage. It doesn’t seem fair.

No, it isn’t fair, and so it isn’t allowed. Just as Negatives can protest when Affirmative advantages are extratopical (see the previous chapter), the Affirmatives can have the judge overlook Negative advantages which are extracompetitive. All the Negative’s advantages must flow from plan mandates that are in opposition to the resolution. Negatives cannot claim advantages to plan spikes, finance points, or any other matters that are not germane to the topic area any more then the Affirmative can. Any extracompetitive advantages — those caused by counterplan planks that are not in direct competition with the Affirmative plan — must be dropped from the debate.


How do speaker duties change when a counterplan is presented?

The First Affirmative Constructive remains the same, obviously, since the counterplan has not been introduced.

Begin with a Negative philosophy conceding that change is desirable, but denying that the resolution is acceptable. Handle definitions; usually, you will agree to Affirmative definitions, but you may wish to introduce some of your own. Then cover the Affirmative case arguments. Selectively accept or refute harm and inherency issues; you can freely accept Affirmative arguments if the counterplan solves the harms. Be as brief as possible, for there is a lot of territory to cover.

Present the counterplan. Remember, it should have nearly the same detail as the Affirmative plan. Demonstrate that the counterplan is nontopical. Use a structured and labeled argument; you might even identify this as "Negative contention one."

Demonstrate that the counterplan is competitive. Again, a structured argument presented as "Negative contention two" would be best. Make it clear to the judge what standard for competitiveness you are using.

Argue that the Negative retains presumption. This will be contention three.

If the counterplan will solve all or part of the Affirmative harms, your next point should demonstrate solvency. The argument may be labeled NEGATIVE COUNTERPLAN MEETS THE AFFIRMATIVE NEED. Of course, if you are ignoring the Affirmative harms, this point should not be included.

Present the additional advantage(s) that the counterplan achieves. Each advantage must have three parts: (1) That there is a significant benefit to be gained, or a significant harm to be avoided; (2) That the Affirmative plan does not achieve this advantage; (3) That the counterplan achieves or retains this advantage. Note that you can argue that the counterplan retains certain benefits of the status quo that the plan would discard. The structure of each advantage is modeled on the same form we discussed in Chapter 3: the 1-2-3 points are precise parallels to need, inherency, and solvency arguments.

An alternative form for the new advantages is to argue disadvantages against the plan. Each would have the same structure as a conventional disad, with one exception: instead of arguing that the disad is unique to the plan over the status quo, you will argue that the disad is unique to the plan over the counterplan. At this point, you’re not really interested in defending the status quo any more — but any disadvantage which applies to the plan but not to the counterplan is an additional reason for the judge to reject the Affirmative’s viewpoint.

Finally, refer back to the Negative philosophy to conclude your speech.

Begin by covering the case. Rebuild and extend harm and inherency, if necessary. You will not extend as fully as you usually do on those issues that the Negative team has granted. However, if you can extend your harms into areas that the counterplan cannot cure, or you can extend inherency to thwart the counterplan’s solvency, you should do so. In general, you should not spend more than two or three minutes reaffirming your case structure.

Next, you may choose to argue that the counterplan is topical. This argument, if won, assures a victory for the Affirmative, since the Negative would thus be favoring the resolution. You should only present the topicality argument if the counterplan is reasonably topical, of course.

You may next choose to argue that the counterplan is noncompetitive. Show that with minor modifications, both plan and counterplan could exist at the same time. Or it may be that the counterplan is artificially competitive (by stealing Affirmative funding or outright banning the Affirmative plan). Or perhaps the counterplan and plan are competitive on a temporary of limited basis only. For example, the Negative may propose abolishing state and federal governments altogether, arguing that local governments and private enterprise can together take care of the problems; the Affirmative could respond that this dismantling can and should be done slowly, and therefore we can adopt the Affirmative plan now to get its advantages while society makes its progress toward the counterplan ideal.

Next, you will argue that the Negative team loses presumption. Tell the judge that the Negative can win only by proving a clear and significant advantage over the Affirmative plan. Explain why this should be so; perhaps the reasoning given a few paragraphs ago will help here.

Refute the additional Negative advantages (or Negative disadvantages against the plan). You may challenge them as extracompetitive, as well as arguing need and inherency issues.

Finally, present Counterplan-Meet-Need (solvency) and Counterplan-Disadvantage arguments. These should be modeled on the structure we discussed in Chapter 6 for 2NC plan attacks. You should try to retain time to present at least one counterplan D-A.

You must respond to any new arguments that were introduced in 2AC. Since your partner already began arguing topicality and competitiveness, you may safely leave those for his upcoming rebuttal. Similarly, 1NR will rebuild the Negative counterplan advantages. However, if the Affirmative challenged any of your advantages as extracompetitive, you will want to refute that argument before rebuttals begin. Take a strong position on those points.

Next, go to the counterplan plan attacks: the Counterplan-Meet-Need and Counterplan D-As that 2AC presented. Refute them. You will want to take a more substantial stand than 1AR normally takes against Negative plan attacks. Don’t just say that the D-A lacks an impact, for example, but read evidence to deny that an impact exists. You should take no more than four minutes to handle these crucial arguments.

This leave you half of your speech to present PMNs and D-As of your own. In presenting disadvantages, it is even more important than usual to prove that the D-A is unique to the Affirmative plan. So make sure to include subpoints proving that the counterplan does not fall victim to the same disadvantage. Likewise, if both the Affirmative plan and the Negative counterplan are attempting to solve the same problems, your PMN arguments must show that Negative solvency still accrues even if Affirmative solvency fails. Disadvantages assume even more importance in a counterplan round than in a debate where the Negative supports the status quo: every disadvantage becomes an additional reason to reject the Affirmative plan because the net benefits of the Negative proposal are superior. Thus disadvantages not only help weigh the issues in the debate, but they also help prove competitiveness of the two proposals.

Your partner should have covered any completely new issues that arose in 2AC. This leaves you free to go back and rebuild the analysis of your first speech, in the same order it was presented: Affirmative case; then counterplan formalities (topicality, competitiveness, presumption); then solvency for Affirmative advantages, if used; then Negative advantages. Drop arguments as needed; your time is very short. Probably the safest place to drop points is against the Affirmative case.

1AR, 2NR, and 2AR.
These three speeches have to carry everything that is vital — an immense burden to the speakers. Only clear organization will make that possible. All speakers should follow this order in the issues addressed:

  1. Plan attacks against your policy.
  2. Advantages presented by the opposing team.
  3. Formal requirements of the counterplan (topicality, competitiveness, and presumption).
  4. Plan attacks against the opposing policy.
  5. Your own advantages.

This allows you to end your speech on the strongest issues in your favor — your own case structure and the flaws in the opponents’ case.


How is a counterplan recorded on a flowchart?

Organization is the key to success here. A poorly organized debate will be a mess to flow and impossible to argue. Other things being equal, the judge will tend to favor the team that most clearly organizes its arguments.

The best way to flow the counterplan debate is to start a complete new flowchart to cover counterplan issues. Thus, the counterplan itself will be recorded where the 1AC plan usually is placed; counterplan plan attacks will be put where 2NC plan attacks would normally be found; 1NC’s counterplan advantages would take the place of the 1AC case, and so on. Be sure to label the columns carefully so you know which speaker presented which arguments.


How does the judge decide who wins a counterplan debate?

The judge begins by weighing the formal requirements of the counterplan. He should base his decision on the arguments presented, not on his personal beliefs. So, even if he thought the counterplan was topical, he should not base his decision on topicality if the Affirmative never argued the issue.

Topicality is the starting point. If the Negative counterplan is topical, Affirmative wins. If the Affirmative plan is nontopical, Negative wins. If both teams violate the topicality barrier (very unlikely), the Affirmative will probably win (because one team — the Negative — is supporting the resolution, even if they didn’t mean to do so, and a victory for the resolution means a victory for the Affirmative team).

Assuming topicality doesn’t determine a winner, the judge will next consider competitiveness. If the Affirmative and Negative plans could exist together, the Affirmative wins. Otherwise, the judge mentally drops any extracompetitive Negative advantages and extratopical Affirmative advantages from the round; they won’t enter into his final decision.

To evaluate the net desirability of the Affirmative plan, the judge considers the Affirmative advantages. Their value is reduced by whatever extent the Negative argued against need, or showed the counterplan could cure the harms, or showed the Affirmative plan failed to provide solvency. Also subtracted from this side is the harm caused by any plan disadvantages.

The judge then similarly whittles down the benefits of the counterplan. Reducing the advantages by Affirmative arguments against need, plan solvency of Negative harms, and counterplan-meet-need arguments, then subtracting the value of counterplan disadvantages gives the net benefits of the Negative policy.

If one proposal is clearly better than the other at this point, it will win. Otherwise, the judge turns to matter of presumption. Based on the arguments presented in the debate, he will decide which team needs to have a greater advantage. Once that decision is made, the debate is won if that side has presented a policy with greater net benefits.

All this just goes to prove that the judge has to work very, very hard in order to develop a decision in a counterplan round. The key to getting high speaker scores — and often, the winning ballot — is to take extraordinary care to be organized. The final rebuttal for your side should strongly emphasize why prior arguments win the counterplan for your side, whichever side that might be.


Introduction to Policy Debate
Copyright © 1990, 1993, 1996, 2002 John R. Prager
All rights reserved.
Permission is not granted to reproduce this document in whole or in part, in any medium.