“‘Planning’ Your Way To Victory”: Plan Writing Advice From 1982

In parts three and four of my series about the evolution of plans in policy debate, I explained the dramatic changes in prevailing plan text norms that took place in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1982 — right in the middle of this era of profound plan text changes — Jeff Arrington contributed an article to the Debater’s Research Guide which sought to provide debaters with practical advice about plan writing.

Written from the perspective of a competitively successful, just-graduated college debater, the article provides a valuable glimpse into how plans were conceptualized during this era. Comparing Arrington’s advice from 1982 to the advice that students might receive about plan writing today helps crystallize the significant changes in norms about plans over time.

The full text of Arrington’s article is included below.

Arrington, Jeff. “‘Planning’ Your Way To Victory.” Debater’s Research Guide (Arms Sales: The Politics of Destruction), Published by Wake Forest University, 1982.

A winning Affirmative case is an absolute necessity for a team to win debate championships. While many factors contribute to an Affirmative ballot, none can so easily spell defeat as a poorly conceived Affirmative plan. Even if the case being debated is “true”, well researched, and defended by the most persuasive speakers in history, one tiny plan flaw can render all complementary efforts meaningless. In this light, we will strive over these next few pages to develop a sound framework from which debaters can write solid Affirmative plans.

The Purpose of the Plan: Developing a Proposal

Debate is an exercise in policy analysis, and after the Affirmative has demonstrated a significant and inherent harm, it is their burden to propose a solution to that problem that will rectify the specified harms with the least cost to society. It is the plan that serves this essential service. Thus, the first thing debaters must do when they write a plan is to figure out exactly what they intend to do to “solve” their harm. There are two primary avenues one can take in developing a proposal.

During the development of an Affirmative case, the debaters should have done much, if not all, of the research by themselves. By reading over the primary materials relating to their case area, they should gain a pretty good insight into what is necessary to solve a problem, what has been offered in the past, and what the “real world” thinks would be the best solution. After accumulating this knowledge, the debater can then write a plan that either uses a proposed solution that has yet to be adopted, or develop a personal program using their own ideas based upon their readings. Both have their advantages and their drawbacks.

Choosing an existing proposal is usually a safe route. The fact that it has not been adopted lends credence to the Affirmative inherency position, and its offering before major decision-making bodies usually implies that much evidence will exist in the literature to support the validity of the concept. Since Affirmatives have an evidentiary burden of solvency, such a consideration is no small factor. Furthermore, the solution will have most likely gone through many give-and-take sessions among policy-makers and will therefore involve a system of obtaining the most gain with the smallest loss. There are also drawbacks.

Intuitively, if a problem really does exist and a solution has been offered, then there must be some legitimate reason why it hasn’t been adopted. It is possible that the Affirmative’s inherency is really true, but it would pay for debaters to know exactly what the barrier has been. In many cases the compromises required by our democratic processes dilute many solutions before they get to the floor of Congress to solicit Members to vote for the proposal, or to ensure special interest groups are not offended by the action Congress is taking. As a result, many bills that appear in congressional hearings and testimony are often only limited, or superficial solutions to the problem.

The second choice involves the development of a personal policy option. The obvious drawback to this concept is that little, if any, solvency evidence will exist to back-up the validity of the Affirmative’s approach. Even if it seems infinitely reasonable, debate too often centers upon having or not having a “card” and our obsession with evidence may doom this approach. On the other hand, there are some real benefits to the “original” plan.

By reading through all the testimony relating to a societal problem, debaters, not being influenced by special interests or political considerations, often can advance solutions that Congress could not, or would not, think of. And since debate is an issue of “should” rather than “would”, the real world objections to the idea become irrelevant.

In writing a plan, I would recommend a combination of the two methods. When researching a problem, seek the best available option the present system has advanced to solve it, and then correct that proposal’s shortfalls by correcting them in the plan. For example, Congress may be mad at a certain bill because the method the sponsors chose to fund the proposal is objectionable to them; to correct that all one has to do is include in the Affirmative plan all of the same mandates except change the method of funding to a different source. That way, the debater reaps the benefits of the testimony and expert opinion in favor of a solution while avoiding the trouble- spots through intelligent amendment.

In short, the debater should thoroughly research the case area they have selected, zero in on a proposal offered by a reputable group, and then correct any problems in that solution (as indicated by opposing testimony) through changes in the debater’s version of the plan.

Writing The Plan: Things That Belong (And Things That Don’t)

A plan should serve as a simulation of real policy development. The plan should provide for the solution to the financing (if necessary), enforcement, and mechanisms to make sure that the plan is not circumvented by other agencies.

The first concern should be plan adoption and implementation. Since Inherency demands that the proposal would not or could not be adopted by the present system, the plan must provide a mechanism to overcome these barriers; this is usually achieved through a “legislation” provision. This plank of the plan will usually say that all legislation necessary for plan adoption will be passed by Affirmative fiat (fiat is the power given Affirmatives to make sure that political barriers and other similar things experienced in the “real world” are not factors in a debate round — the “should”, not “would” of the resolution) and that other existing legislation in conflict with the Affirmative will be superceded. If the Affirmative requires a change in the Constitution, then this plank would also specify passage of a constitutional amendment.

To make sure that adjudicators of the enforcement of the plan have something from which to determine the spirit of the intent of the plan, it is often wise to include an additive phrase indicating that the Affirmative speeches will serve as intent for purposes of legislative history (be careful of the wording here: some negatives have recently developed disadvantages based on the idea that this plank will prevent the courts from looking at negative speeches; hence the plan should be worded in such a way that Affirmative speeches are the directing, but not deciding, indicator of intent.)

Now that we have facilitated the adoption of the plan, it is necessary to ensure post-adoption implementation. The most popular route teams have taken in this regard in the past is through the establishment of an Affirmative board. This board will be responsible for administering the plan just as the Secretary of Defense and the Pentagon are responsible for administering U.S. defense policies. To prevent the co-option of the plan, Affirmatives have in the past included many small safeguards to decrease this risk, ranging from Affirmative appointment to the provision of high salaries for board members. It must be remembered, however, that a debate team is responsible for everything that is in the plan, and the inclusion of a phrase because it was in the “Baylor Briefs” or because a coach told one to do so may precipitate danger.

It was once popular for plans to be Affirmatively-appointed; now many negatives carry disadvantages arguing that Affirmative appointment of federal officers violates the constitutional directive that only the President appoints such officers. It used to be fashionable for Affirmative boards to be self-perpetuating; now negatives have disadvantages saying that self-perpetuation leads to poor leadership in the long run. Affirmatives used to have retirement at age 62 or 65; negatives soon caught on and ran disadvantages based on this. The message is simple: do not include something in the establishment of a board that has no readily apparent reason and cannot be defended at an evidentiary level.

There is nothing wrong with the President appointing the board; as long as the plan provides for removal if one of the board members goes astray there is no reason to provide for self-perpetuation or any of the other “fancy” checks. The rule to follow here is to be simple—just include what is minimally sufficient to get the plan rolling and to ensure that the Board does not start doing whatever they want to.

Almost everything these days costs money, and Affirmative plans are rarely exceptions. Even if evidence exists indicating a plan may save money, the authors of these “cards” are usually speaking of long-term effects, so that in the short-term the plan will require some sort of funding. In these days of austere budgets, funding should not be an issue taken lightly by Affirmatives when they write their plans.

Initially, it must be remembered that the plan must be a topical example of the resolution. Anything that produces an advantage, or by inverse logic, prevents a disadvantage, must emanate from a topical part of the plan. Thus, if Affirmatives hope to avoid social spending disadvantages by specifying a funding source, they should be able to defend the topicality of that provision; otherwise, they may lose the debate on the issue of extra-topicality. Therefore, if the plan is reasonably costly, look for topical means of financing the plan. If none are available the plan should be funded through general federal revenues or off-budget sources, and Affirmatives should prepare briefs in anticipation of social spending and Reaganomics arguments.

As with any law or statute, a plan without effective enforcement is practically meaningless. Thus, any winning Affirmative proposal should have an effective and defensible enforcement provision. There is no need to get carried away here; usually specifying that violators will be prosecuted and given fines or imprisonment will be enough, but if the particulars of a case require something more, research should be directed at finding an effective enforcement mechanism. Again, a word of caution is necessary — do not include anything that is not defensible at a logical, practical, and hopefully evidentiary level. Many negatives have worked for years developing disadvantages to picky Affirmative plan planks because broad topics have often resulted in their debating without specific arguments against the Affirmative case. Don’t get caught in this trap.

Summing up, a complete Affirmative plan is composed of five general parts: 1) the mandates, or what the team is advancing as a solution to a given problem, 2) an implementing agent, most often an Affirmative board, that is responsible for the working of the plan after initial adoption, 3) funding, to make sure that enough money is available to finance the mandates, enforcement and oversight of the plan, 4) enforcement, to guarantee that the mandates of the plan are adhered to and that board members operate in good faith, and finally 5) an enabling provision, providing for the adoption of any necessary legislation to get the whole ball of wax rolling.

The Controversial Nature of the Plan Spike

In addition to having all the things previously mentioned in a plan, many Affirmatives have sought to minimize expected disadvantages by including “plan spikes.” Plan spikes are generally parts of a plan that do not contribute to the solution the Affirmative isolates in the harm area, but rather seeks to prevent a disadvantage by offering a mechanism to correct it. To exemplify, an Affirmative may employ millions of Americans as a result of plan adoption; to prevent hearing the AVF disadvantage (which argues that increased employment directly hurts recruitment of the All-Volunteer Army, therefore resulting in less recruits which would mean fewer U.S. troops stationed abroad and thus result in nuclear proliferation which would inevitably provoke a war, involve the superpowers, and end in the destruction of all living things on Earth), an Affirmative would include in the plan policies to be adopted by the Department of Defense (such as more lenient entrance restrictions and more female recruits) which would prevent the undesired result.

If the Affirmative wishes to engage in these practices, there are a few guidelines they should follow. First, the spike should be researched and defensible. Any time a team seeks to prevent a disadvantage, they should be prepared to prove that the spike will indeed cause the anticipated result and that the spike produces more good than harm. One must remember that a spike is in the plan just as the mandates are, and a negative may have a disadvantage dealing only with the spike; hence, it is imperative that Affirmatives only advance spikes that they know they can defend and win.

Secondly, the Affirmative must be prepared to defend the topicality aspects of a plan spike. When arguing a disadvantage that is preempted by an Affirmative plan spike, good negative teams will respond that the spike is non-topical, and therefore should be stricken from the plan (greedy negatives may even argue that a non-topical spike should be a voting issue based on the issue of extra-topicality). If the Affirmative cannot produce a convincing reason why the spike is a topical action, then they must prepare arguments defending the theory of plan spikes. Such a defense is possible.

The first position an Affirmative may take in defense of a plan spike is that disadvantages should be intrinsic to the plan. In other words, if the disadvantage is not the result of the plan, but instead a result of effects many steps down the road, the disadvantage does not justify rejection of the Affirmative plan, but rather justifies adoption of other measures to reduce these undesirable effects. By having the spike in the plan, the Affirmative is providing such an additive measure. This argument may be defended by the use of analogies.

For example, Congress may adopt a proposal and then add measures to reduce its bad effects. Dr. James Unger of Georgetown University wrote that “… once having adopted the resolution on the basis of that it alone meets needs or obtains advantages, prudent and reasonable men might modify or add to the affirmative proposals in order to avoid foreseeable undesirable consequences.” [Footnote 1: James Unger, Georgetown University, “Second Thoughts on the Question of Health Care,” p. 13-14.]

The Executive Branch could operate in a similar way, and has indeed done so. President Carter deregulated natural gas, and then to mitigate the effects of the expected rise in prices, provided funds to the elderly to help them pay for their heating bills. Scientists, when conducting experiments also justify the use of the “plan spike.”

To establish the relative truth of a statement or hypothesis, scientists control all other variables. Thus, the Affirmative can argue that to test the truth of their proposal extraneous factors that can be eradicated through supplementary measures should not be used as an argument against the original position.

Furthermore, if Affirmatives were not allowed to use plan spikes, teams may argue, debates would too often boil down to debating the same generic disadvantages heard year after year. By allowing spikes, the Negative is forced to debate the specific merits and shortcomings of the particular Affirmative plan, instead of falling back to general societal problems that may to some nebulous degree be affected by the Affirmative.

In short, plan spikes can enhance the ability of a case to win debates by mitigating the effects of prominent disadvantages. However, risks are involved. My advice would be to first attempt to beat the disadvantage in question straight-up: Affirmatives should research the argument and strive to prove that its assumptions are faulty, that the impact is not as great as that argued, or that the Affirmative advantage, even if the disadvantage carries, still justifies the resolution. If that strategy fails, an attempt should be made to find topical solutions to the problem, and if one still comes up short, include a spike and be prepared to defend the theoretical questions involved.

A Few Comments About Plan Style

There are many different views concerning the style of the plan’s actual presentation in the debate round. I will attempt to present all of the issues that must be addressed in choosing a particular style, and then the debaters should decide on the particular action they wish to pursue.

Length of the plan is one question that should be answered. Many debaters feel that if they intentionally make the plan longer than necessary, they will gain a strategic advantage by forcing the Negative to spend more time than usual simply “figuring out” what the Affirmative is trying to do. I reject such a concept. I would recommend making the plan as simple and streamlined as possible. If I have any general theme regarding plan construction, it is that only what is absolutely necessary be included. In the same light, the plan should only be as long and/or complicated as the particular case demands. The more simple the argumentation, the easier it is for judges to follow; and it has been my experience that the easiest Affirmative wins come when the Negative is the least confused.

Another popular issue concerns the speed at which the plan should be delivered. Admittedly, I am somewhat biased on this point. As debaters, my colleague and I chose to read the plan as fast as humanly possible (without sacrificing clarity). Our position was that any questions regarding specific plan provisions would always be settled by the judge or the opposing team actually asking for the plan itself. However, many judges feel that for something to be in the round, they must write it down. At the college level, most judges do not object to rapidly delivered plans; things may be different at the particular area of the country where the reader of this article may happen to debate. My advice would be to do what you can get away with — go as fast as the judge or circuit will allow. The plan will not become an issue in most rounds until the 2nd Negative constructive, and most likely not until the 1AR; therefore, a long and slowly delivered plan takes time away from building the case in the 1AC. Thus, the plan should be delivered in as brief a time as the circumstances will allow (and it is usually wise for Affirmatives to have a couple of different versions of the 1AC to facilitate easy adaptation to different audiences).

Finally, a note to the 1ACs across the nation: know what the plan does! Even if judges do allow free and mellow cross-examination, it does not help the image of the team for the First Affirmative speaker to appear ignorant of the workings of the plan. If the 1AC does not participate in the researching of the case, then the Affirmative team members should have several sessions where they practice cross-examination questions and go over the specifics and technicalities of the plan. The cross-examination of the 1AC is the first time the judge can see the Affirmative team as debaters, and therefore it is in their interest to make as good a showing as possible.

Concluding Remarks

This paper has attempted to offer only a broad outline of what most Affirmative plans should consist of. In many cases the suggestions in these pages will not fit the particular circumstance of a team of case, and experimentation will be necessary to a great degree. One nice thing about debate rules is that they are debatable, and if one develops a new theory regarding plan construction, they should go ahead and try it!

Additionally, there is no such thing as the “perfect” plan. Flaws will appear throughout the year, and it is essential that Affirmatives constantly evaluate their plan provisions and change them when appropriate. Good Affirmative teams will usually go through several plan modifications during the course of the year (and a somewhat different plan each time will keep the Negative on their toes).

Appendix: A Typical Affirmative Plan [with comments in brackets]

1. Mandates

All sales of military equipment to the nation commonly referred to as the People’s Republic of China will be strictly prohibited. This prohibition applies to any actions taken by the United States government, the Department of Defense, or private companies and contractors. Any materials deemed impracticable for any but military applications will also be covered by the prohibition. These restrictions may only be altered if the security of the United States is directly threatened, as determined by the Commander-in-Chief and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Any sales proposed as a result of the just mentioned exemption are subject to approvals by Congress. Use of military assistance or transfers to the PRC as possible means of circumventing this proposal will be disallowed.

[The section saying “the nation commonly referred to as” is used to prevent Negatives from arguing the PRC will simply change its name to qualify for assistance. While this argument may sound ridiculous, some debates have been decided on the basis of that issue. The loophole may present some enforcement provisions, but it is broad enough to enable the Affirmative to occasionally elude disadvantages, while narrow enough to still carry a significant measure of solvency.]

2. Administration

A Presidentially-appointed board will be established under the Department of Defense to be responsible for plan adoption, implementation, and enforcement. The board will be well salaried and guaranteed all necessary staff, funding, information, and investigatory power. Board members will be removed for-mis, mal or nonfeasance.

[The provision of funding, information, etc. is put in to answer arguments relating to attempts by interest groups and/or Congress to sabotage the plan by denying it critical resources.]

3. Enforcement

Violators of plan intent will be subject to fines and/or imprisonment depending on the severity of the offense.

[Nothing fancy here.]

4. Funding

Funds will be provided through normal appropriation process from general federal revenues.

[Since the cost of this plan is near zero, there is no need to freak-out with the funding plank.]

5. Implementation

All necessary legislation will be adopted. Any conflicting acts will be superceded and/or amended to exist in consistency with this plan. Affirmative speeches will serve as sponsor intent, latter speeches given priority.

Jeff Arrington debated for West Georgia College, winning many major tournaments including in 1982 competing in the finals of tournaments at Bates College, MTSU, Emory Univ., Harvard Univ., and Northwestern Univ. He has competed in the elimination rounds of the 1981 and 1982 National Debate Tournament, placing 5th in the 1982 NDT.