Digging Into The Debate Theory Archives: Ulrich on Counter-Procedure Counterplans

Digging Into The Debate Theory Archives is a series highlighting “old” debate theory articles that are particularly thought-provoking, influential, or illuminating and that active debate students would benefit from reading.

In part five of the recent series on the history of plans in policy debate, I quoted Walter Ulrich’s 1987 attempt to categorize the different types of counterplans. He distinguished between three major types: counter agent counterplans, counter policy counterplans, and counter procedure counterplans. While further sub-categorizations (like Solt’s twelve categories) may be helpful to distinguish between particular counterplans, the simplicity of Ulrich’s taxonomy can help students recognize their shared foundational assumptions.

Ulrich outlined his categorization scheme in a short article about one of the three counterplan types he identified: counter procedure counterplans. He defined them as counterplans that “develop alternative methods of evaluating and/or adopting the policy defended by the affirmative.” Popular examples included “the referendum counterplan, the study counterplan, planning counterplans, and other counterplans that advocate alternative processes for evaluating the affirmative policy.”

While later theorists have conceptualized these counterplans as plan-contingent counterplans, Ulrich’s explanation of the logic (or illogic) of counter procedure counterplans remains valuable for contemporary students to understand. In Ulrich’s view, these counterplans are inconsistent with the assumed, inherent decision-making procedure of a contest round. “If two individuals were discussing public policy and one individual responded that the best way to decide the policy was to have another body study the problem,” Ulrich noted, “the ploy would be viewed as an evasion of the speaker’s responsibility to debate the issues.”

While Ulrich’s critique still applies to the surviving plan-contingent counterplans (referendum counterplans and commission counterplans remain popular), it can also be extended to a wide range of popular process counterplans.

One recent example is the National Governors Association counterplan. Instead of the federal government adopting the plan, it argues that the NGA should threaten to stop state compliance with federal policies and programs unless the federal government adopts the plan. The negative argues that this NGA “threat” will result in federal adoption of the plan. The net-benefit is an argument about uncooperative federalism; adopting the plan as a result of the NGA’s threat strengthens states’ power, but adoption of the plan without that threat does not.

The logic of the NGA counterplan is similar to the logic of the counter procedure counterplans Ulrich was criticizing. Instead of challenging the merits of the affirmative plan, the NGA counterplan argues that the plan would be more desirable if it was adopted through a different (non-“normal means”) procedure. While there are important differences between the NGA counterplan and the “classic” counter procedure counterplans, affirmatives will be able to draw on Ulrich’s article to formulate sophisticated objections to it.

Ulrich’s critique is even more useful for students preparing to answer the commission counterplan. Its recent resurgence will likely continue, so it is vital for students to understand its underlying logic and theoretical assumptions.

The full text of Ulrich’s article is below.

Ulrich, Walter. “The Legitimacy of the Counter Procedure Counterplan.” Journal of the American Forensic Association, Volume 23, Issue 3, Winter 1987, pp. 166-168.

There are three types of counterplans. A counter agent counterplan argues that the affirmative policy should be adopted by another level of government (Ulrich, 1979, Dempsey & Hartmann, 1985). The state counterplan and international counterplans are examples of this type of argument. The counter policy counterplan suggests that another type of policy should be adopted instead of the affirmative plan. These counterplans are usually specific, if not to the affirmative case, to the current resolution. For example, if the topic requires that the affirmative team defend a uniform national policy, a negative team may advocate exempting parts of the country from the affirmative plan. A short term, incremental policy may be advanced as an alternative to a long term action. The counter procedure counterplan argues that we should develop alternative methods of evaluating and/or adopting the policy defended by the affirmative. This type of counterplan includes the referendum counterplan, the study counterplan, planning counterplans, and other counterplans that advocate alternative processes for evaluating the affirmative policy.

There have been a number of essays that have examined the study counterplan from a pragmatic perspective (Hynes, 1980; Hynes, 1985; Mayer, 1983; Mayer, 1986; Mayer & Hale, 1979; Shelton, 1985; Unger, 1979). These essays have all addressed the issue of whether additional study will improve the decision process. For the most part, however, other counter procedure counterplans have been ignored and instead the attacks on the counter procedure counterplans have focused on the way a particular counterplan would operate. This essay will argue that, even if there are no pragmatic problems with specific counter procedure counterplans, this type of counterplan should be rejected as being an inappropriate negative strategy. Even if the arguments of the proponents of the counter procedure counterplans are accurate in their description of the benefits of their procedure, the focus of the debate should not be on the process that produces the affirmative policy. This is true both because the counter procedure counterplan places an unrealistic burden on the affirmative team and because it reflects an inappropriate view of the debate process.

First, the counter procedure counterplan places an unreasonable burden on the affirmative. To understand this position, it is important to recognize the procedure that the counterplan seeks to replace. While the focus of the debate in most counter procedure counterplan rounds is on the desirability of the specific procedure being defended, the alternative to the procedure outlined in the counterplan is to decide to adopt a policy using the debate process, as illustrated by the particular round. For example, negative [end page 166] teams will often combine a study counterplan with an indictment of the affirmative evidence and will advance potential objections to the affirmative plan that suggest that additional study is needed before we act. The question is whether the affirmative team should be required to defend the debate process as the best procedure for deciding policy.

Such a requirement is unreasonable; it is unlikely that anyone would suggest that matters of public policy should be determined by having four high school or college debaters argue in front of a debate judge and it is unrealistic to expect the affirmative team to have to defend such a procedure as being superior to other ways of reaching decisions. There are some pragmatic objections to counter procedure counterplans, but compared to the inherent limitations of the academic debate process (lack of expertise, limited time, lack of access to classified information, etc.) these limitations are trivial. While the affirmative team may be able to incorporate some of the provisions of the negative procedure into their plan, they cannot guarantee that the outcome of the procedure will be topical.

Another procedure may very well produce a better decision, but the decision to use the debate procedure has been made prior to the round; the question is, given the current procedure, what should be done? To argue that additional study would produce a better policy is to attack the rules of the game, not the skills of the affirmative. The contest debate assumes the current procedure, and operates within that procedure.

This does not mean that the negative team (or the affirmative team) cannot attack a policy on the grounds that we do not have enough information to act. For example, a team might legitimately suggest that we should not pass a regulation because there is inadequate data to sup- port the proposal. In evaluating this attack, however, it is important to recognize that the standard for the adequacy of evidence in a debate round would normally be lower than that outside debate due to time constraints and a wide number of other factors that make academic debate a less than ideal forum for decision making. Additionally, uncertainty about a policy would not lead to its automatic rejection; rather it would force the judge to weigh the lowered probability of the advantages of a proposal against the probability of the disadvantages.

The second problem with the counter procedure counterplan is that it makes an unwarranted assumption about the nature of debate. The purpose of academic debate is not to adopt policy, but to test the skills in argumentation of the two rival teams. At the end of the round, no policy is actually adopted. While for some concepts in debate it may be useful to pretend that a policy is actually adopted at the conclusion of the round (for example, the theory of fiat, in some paradigms, permits the advocates to compare policies without proving that the policy will actually be adopted), this myth is created in order to ease our comparison of the skills of the advocate.

To permit the negative team to appeal to an external procedure as being superior to the debate procedure is to short-circuit this comparison; the negative team is, in essence, permitting other individuals to debate in their place. Instead of forcing the negative team to discover and defend weaknesses of the affirmative policy, counter procedure counterplans permit the negative team to win if they can establish that some other agency might discover problems with the affirmative policy. The affirmative team is thus required, not simply to debate the negative team, but to be able to demonstrate that they can defeat external advocates (those involved in the negative counterplan). A study commission might be able to do a better job at exposing problems with the affirmative policy, but it is the negative team’s [end page 167] responsibility to explain these problems. We should not assume that there are problems with the affirmative policy until these problems are identified; to do so is to arbitrarily favor one team over the other. The question facing the judge is whether the negative team can develop arguments against the affirmative case; not whether it is likely that somewhere there might be other individuals who could locate these objections. In short, the affirmative team should be asked to be prepared to respond to the negative team’s substantive arguments; they need not be prepared to defend their case against all possible opponents, both inside and outside the debate round.

This weakness is even clearer if one views debate from a non-policy making perspective. For example, if one viewed debate as a process of discussing policy issues, the counter procedure counterplan type arguments would be rejected. If two individuals were discussing public policy and one individual responded that the best way to decide the policy was to have another body study the problem, the ploy would be viewed as an evasion of the speaker’s responsibility to debate the issues. Clearly a more reliable decision could be reached if more information was available, if experts were available to evaluate the policy, and if more time was available. That does not mean that individuals should not discuss and debate these issues in other forums. The debate is designed to test the relative ability of the two sets of advocates, not to decide the truth for all eternity. The issue is not whether there is a better way to resolve disputes than using the academic debate format; the issue is whether, given the constraints of the debate process, the resolution should be supported.

Waiter Ulrich is an Assistant Professor of Speech and Director of Debate at Vanderbilt University.


Dempsey, R. H., & Hartmann, D. J. (1985). Mirror state counterplans: Illegitimate, topical, or magical? Journal of the American Forensic Association, 21, 161-166.

Hynes, T. J., Jr. (1980). Study: Hope or false promise. Journal of the American Forensic Association, 16, 192-198.

Hynes, T. J., Jr. (1985). The study counterplan—Still hoping—A reply to Shelton. Journal of the American Forensic Association, 21, 156-160.

Mayer, M. E. (1983). Epistemological considerations of the studies counterplan. Journal of the American Forensic Association, 19, 67-72.

Mayer, M. E. (1986). The study counterplan: Misunderstanding or misunderstood—a reply to Shelton. Journal of the American Forensic Association, 22, 179-183.

Mayer, M. E., and Hale, J. (1979). Evaluating the studies counterplan: Topicality and competitiveness. Speaker and Gavel, 16, 67-72.

Shelton, M. W. (1985). In defense of the study counterplan. Journal of the American Forensic Association, 21, 150-155.

Ulrich, W. The agent in argument: Toward a theory of fiat. Paper presented at the meeting of the Central States Speech Association, St. Louis. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 170 800)

Unger, J. J. (1979). Investigating the investigators: A study of the studies counterplan. Debate Issues, 12, 1-8.