Revitalizing Debate in the U.S. House of Representatives

January 8, 2024  

  • Congressional Reform
  • Blog

By: Darryl Cooper

On September 29th, 2023, the U.S. House of Representatives opened the floor for debate on H.R. 5225 on government funding through October 31st. The debate lasted for about an hour as members took turns giving speeches on their party’s stance on the bill. Such debate, however, hardly resembles the exchange of ideas seen at the Oxford Union or even at high school debate competitions. Floor debate in the House more closely resembles speech-a-thons. As former Historian for the U.S. House of Representatives, Raymond W. Smock, put it, “what you get is not a debate so much as a statement of positions” as a result of the chamber’s extensive membership.

Debate as a Political Tool

Within democratic societies, debate is an important political instrument. While explaining debate’s connection to democracy, Nancy Tumposky argues debate can encourage critical thinking and has the potential to expand “the participation of an educated public in preserving and strengthening civic behavior.”

Two of the most important aspects of debate are metacognition and peer interaction. Metacognition forces thinking beyond your own frame of reference and considering the viewpoints of your debate opponents. Tumposky furthers that good debate achieving metacognition is one where it “encourages participants to step outside their personal frames of reference and become aware of their own thinking.”

Good debate also encourages peer interaction among debate opponents. This part is key to fostering critical thinking and a true examination of the issue at hand. Without debate opponents interacting throughout the course of the exercise, it is difficult to achieve metacognition and unlikely to move debaters towards any sort of resolution as one would hope for in a lawmaking body.

Together, metacognition and peer interaction can create an environment of communication where “information, views, arguments, and counter-arguments on relevant issues are expressed and tested mutually.” Good debate that creates a communicative environment can serve as a testing ground for policy proposals rather than mere position-taking speech-a-thons.

Debate in Congress as it is currently practiced does not achieve metacognition or effective peer interaction and no Congress-watcher would claim that there is an environment of communication. This raises the question, what can be done to improve debate in Congress?

Previous Attempts to Reform Debate

In 1993, an article focused on Restoring Faith in Congress outlined the need for more and better debates in Congress concluding that general floor debate “has lost much of its value and influence over the years, becoming a perfunctory recitation of a bill’s merits or drawbacks by the majority and minority bill managers.” The authors argued that implementing Oxford-style debates would be “a way of improving public understanding of Congress, and would also enhance the deliberative capacity of the body.” In 1994, the House of Representatives conducted an unprecedented experiment by attempting a series of Oxford-style debates which featured:

  • Two teams divided by parties selected by the Majority and Minority leaders competed once a month for three months (March-May).
  • Prior to the debate, the topics for each debate were selected by the majority and minority leaders. Democrats and Republicans each chose the topic of one of the debates. The third debate topic was mutually agreed upon between the two parties.
  • Speeches were limited to 5 minutes while the cross-examinations consisted of interruptions or interjections from the opposing side (specific to the Oxford-style debate).

When executed properly, this structure of debate satisfies the criteria of both metacognition and peer interaction creating a somewhat communicative environment. For two hours, they argued and rebutted one another. Both parties were excited and committed to these debates as they brought intellectual sport to the congressional process.

Members believed the experiment was a huge success with hopeful attitudes for its future. When asked to comment on the victor of the first debate round, then-House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-GA.), declined to declare victory stating, “It was a win for the American people, and a win for the House.” Unfortunately, following the three debates in 1994, Oxford-style debates have not been seen on the floor since.

Members of Congress seem to recognize that how they currently practice debate is somewhat substandard. The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress even suggested bringing back Oxford-style debates. As it notes in its Final Report, “Even if only a temporary, pilot program, the Committee recommends this as an important step to improve bipartisan lawmaking and congressional expertise.” The Modernization Committee also recommended debate training led by professionals during new member orientation.

A New Path Forward?

Congress’s approval rating remains quite low, with people across the political spectrum equally unhappy with the institution’s performance and behavior. To rebuild trust, Congress needs better political infrastructure, including better debates, to facilitate common understanding of the problems facing the nation and foster its ability to work towards solutions.

I suggest Public Forum as an alternative style of debate that upholds the strengths of Oxford-style while taking into account how the House has historically conducted debates. Although the overall structure is similar to the Oxford-style, some distinctive features may give it the upper hand when it comes to House debate. The most important differences are:

  • The usage of evidence and direct quoting.
  • Structured and timed sections of cross-examinations and questioning.
  • Three bipartisan judges

In this debate format empirical evidence is an integral part of argumentation which would help ensure facts and evidence become a part of House decision-making. Unlike Oxford-style debates, which rely primarily on how rational an argument sounds, Public Forum-style stresses the importance of integrating data evidence into debate thus providing a more balanced debate experience.

Importantly, each team is given three minutes to cross-examine their opponents. Teams can use this time to ask and answer questions about the other side’s case and supply evidence. Compared to the sporadic interruptions encouraged in the Oxford-style practiced by the UK House of Commons, Public Forum-style debate provides a distinct time to cross examine either side of the debate in a fashion that better fits the tradition of the House.

While the idea of incorporating judges into House debate would be new, the feedback they provide could help guide the public in their understanding of the issues and sound judgment on which side’s evidence and arguments seem more legitimate. I suggest three judges be selected, one from each party and one expert on the debate topic, likely staff from the Congressional Research Service (CRS). Specifically, the selected CRS expert will be a third-party entity that will evaluate the facts to foster evidence-based debate. Judges will decide the winner of the contest and they will also provide feedback that would be available to both members and the public. Scoring and judgment would be based on the strengths and weaknesses of argumentation, the rhetoric of individual debaters, and the overall performance of the respective debate teams. Transparency of these debates could create a competitive incentive within the House that promotes good governance.

Reforming the structure of congressional debates has the potential to significantly improve the substance and tenor of policymaking. Public Forum-style debates could foster greater transparency, accessibility, and public engagement. It may also mitigate some partisan gridlock by encouraging a more collaborative and informed decision-making process. Additionally, by prioritizing civil discourse and evidentiary support, Public Forum debates could reduce negative impressions about Congress and rebuild faith in the institution.