Debating Counterplans


A counterplan is an alternative plan to the affirmative’s plan that is advanced by the negative.  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 or a combination of the plan and all or part of the counterplan.

For example, imagine that I suggest that we take a lunch break and you 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 curly fries – while still establishing 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 not to 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 just do 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 we were going to 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. 

If you prove that a counterplan is net-beneficial by the end of the debate, you have proven that the judge should vote for it – it is, overall, a better idea than the affirmative’s idea. If however, you prove that your counterplan is mutually exclusive, you have only established the first step – you have proven that the counterplan and the plan cannot be done at the same time.  But, you have not proven that it the judge should vote for it. You’d have to prove that the overall benefits of selling a particular weapon outweigh the benefits of not selling any weapons.

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.

Types of Counterplans

The best way to understand what a counterplan is is to understand the different types of counterplans and how they work.  After you read through each, you will have a better understanding of what it means for a counterplan to be competitive.

Agent counterplans.  An agent counterplan is a counterplan that uses a different agent than the affirmative does. For example, if the affirmative’s agent is the  Supreme Court, the negative may chose to counterplan with the Congress.  Negatives will argue that disadvantages that are specific to court action — such as those that address the implications of the court ruling on the legitimacy of the court, will prove that it is better to support congressional action alone.

A common counterplan on  this topic is to have the states implement the water protection (sample) suggested by the affirmative plan. The negative will argue this is net-beneficial because it because the counterplan doesn’t link to the federalism disadvantage.

Plan inclusive counterplans.  A plan inclusive counterplan or “PIC” is a counterplan that does one or more parts of the affirmative’s plan and argues that the part, or parts, that it doesn’t do are bad.  

Take the McDonald’s example.  If my plan is to go to McDonald’s and get a “Super Value Meal,” you could counterplan to exclude the French fries” from my plan and argue that the French fries are the most unhealthy part of the meal.  You would likely claim that you solve for my advantage – reducing hunger pangs at mid-day – while avoiding the unhealthy parts of the meal.

PICs are very strategic counterplans since they are often able to solve all of the affirmative’s harms while avoiding a usually small, but important, disadvantage.

To counter the spread of PICs, affirmatives have substantially reduced the specification in their plan. For example, instead of saying “Go to McDonald’s to get a “Super Value Meal,” they are likely to only commit to going to McDonald’s. They will not specify what they will eat there.

The reason that they do this is because if they don’t specify, and the negative does specify what we should eat, they can simply have a permutation to “go to McDonald’s” and “get a Super Value Meal” without the french fries.”    They will argue that the negative’s alternative is not competitive with their relatively vague proposal.

Advantage counterplans.  An advantage counterplan is a way the negative can solve for a specific advantage without doing the plan (usually any of the plan – distinguishing this type of counterplan from a PIC). For example, imagine that the affirmative team said that we should reduce arms sales because this would hurt President Trump politically and that if he is hurt politically it will cause him to attack Iran, which is a good thing.  The negative could simply counterplan to attack Iran and argue it is bad to reduce arms sales. These counterplans force affirmative team to claim advantage that can really only be solved by their affirmative’s plan.

Process counterplans.  A process counterplan implements the affirmative’s plan through a different process than the negative uses. Most of these counterplans claim that they are different than process the affirmative uses – fiat, which according to modern understandings, passes the plan unconditionally and forever.  

Popular process counterplans include subjecting the plan to a popular referendum, asking NATO or one of our allies if they favor it, or having the plan be implemented through a Presidential veto or Congressional override.  Negative teams will almost always claim that the counterplan process will still result in the adoption of the plan, but that the process the counterplan uses – one that is usually mutually exclusive with the one that the plan uses – has many benefits.

Uniqueness counterplans.  These are the most difficult counterplans to understand and these counterplans are presented by the negative far less frequently than any others.  The basic idea behind a uniqueness counterplan is that the negative can run a counterplan to make the disadvantage unique.

For example, say the negative runs a Spending disadvantage and the affirmative says, “Non-unique – We are about to spend another $80 billion” in Iraq.  The negative says, “Counterplan – don’t spend that $80 billion in Iraq.” The negative will argue that their counterplan is net-beneficial because it is undesirable to spend money (they save money  relative to the status quo) and that the permutation to do both still involves the plan spending money, which is bad.

You have to be very careful when writing a uniqueness counterplan.  Imagine, for example, that implementing the plan would only cost $1 million.  If you counterplan to not spending $80 billion that the status quo spends, the permutation (doing the plan and not spending the $80 billion) we are about to spend in Iraq, still results in a net savings of $79,999,000,000!  The permutation solves the entire link to the disadvantage!

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.

Counterplans Do Not Need to Solve

Many debater think that a counterplan has to solve the affirmative harms, or at least must attempt to solve them.  This is not true. A counterplan could fail to solve any of the affirmative harms but still be net-beneficial because the disadvantages to the affirmative case outweigh the original harms. In this instance, it would still be net-desirable for the judge to vote for the counterplan.  

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.   

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

There is only one “type” of disadvantage, so it is relatively easy to make suggestions for extending disadvantages in the block. The fact that there are many types of counterplans makes this somewhat more difficult.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Counterplan Theory

As noted earlier, counterplans introduce many theoretical controversies. There is no space in this volume to entertain each of them since the debates could occupy an entire volume unto themselves.  I do, however, want to briefly introduce you to each of the key questions so that you are aware of them and are encouraged to learn more about them.

Can the negative run a counterplan?  Although the ability of the negative to counterplan is generally accepted, there are some arguments as to why the negative may not even be able to counterplan in the first place.  One, there is no “should not,” in the negative. The argument is that the affirmative derives its fiat power from the word should in the resolution and that there is no “should not” resolution for the negative. Two, affirmative should not have to be prepared to defend against every theoretical alternative to their plan – there are simply too many.

Although these arguments are interesting, three more powerful arguments have generally carried the day. One, the status quo is often wrong – hard to defend.  To take a contemporary example, the current war in Iraq simply is not working. Almost no one agrees that it is working and, consequently, the negative shouldn’t have to defend something that is (almost) impossible to defend. Second, if the affirmative gets to change the world, so should the negative. A counterplan is a reciprocal opportunity for the negative to get to do what the affirmative gets to do. Three, competitive counterplans are really disadvantages – they are the opportunity cost of voting for the affirmative.  If you vote affirmative, you can’t do the counterplan, and the counterplan is good. That essentially makes the counterplan a disadvantage.

Does the counterplan have to be (non) topical?  In the past, many believed that counterplans had to be non-topical.  In some parts of the country, some people still continue to hold this belief.

The reason that some believe that counterplans have to be non-topical stems from the idea that the negative has to negate the resolution.  A topical counterplan arguably supports the resolution because it would be an example of the resolution being true.

The reason that this view is no longer strongly held is because most now hold that the focus of the debate is the affirmative’s plan, not the resolution.  If the negative’s job is to refute the plan, not the resolution, it doesn’t matter if the counterplan is topical.

A small minority of individuals have argued that counterplans have to be topical.  The argument in favor of this is that it restricts the potential number of counterplan options that the negative has.  Though this does impose a limit, it is a rather artificial limit, and since counterplans are really opportunity costs of not doing the affirmative plan, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to argue that they have to be topical.  Disadvantages certainly do not have to be topical.

Are the different types of counterplans fair?  There is a debate about the merits of each of the individual types of counterplans discussed above? Is it legitimate (fair and/or educational) to simply switch the affirmative’s agent, counterplan with most of their plan (a PIC), change the process through which their plan is implemented, or solves affirmative’s non-uniqueness arguments?  All of this is a matter of intense debate, although at least on the “national circuit,” most individuals believe that these type of counterplans are acceptable.

Does the negative have advocate the counterplan in the 2NR if they advance it in the 1NC?  Negatives can “kick” out of disadvantages, kritiks, or topicality arguments that they advance in the debate.  Their ability to do that is unquestioned. They do not need to advance every argument in the 2NR that they originally initiate in the debate.  They only need to advance a combination of arguments that proves that the status quo, the counterplan, or the kritik alternatives are better than the affirmative.  But, some argue, the negative should have to extend the counterplan in the 2NR if they advance it in the 1NC.

Unlike the legitimacy of negative counterplans in general, there is no consensus at all in the debate community as to whether or not the negative should be allowed to abandon a counterplan they originally advanced in the 1NC.  There is some tendency in favor of it in the contemporary college community, but there is a tendency against it in the high school community.

The debate over whether or not the negative can kick the counterplan has advanced to the circumstances under which they can kick it and whether kicking it under those specific circumstances are desirable.

If the negative argues that they can kick the counterplan whenever they want (any condition), then the counterplan is said to be “conditional.”  Conditionality can also be defined to include that the judge determines after the debate if the counterplan is in play. This would occur when the 2NR goes for a conditional counterplan and instructs the judge to first evaluate the debate with the counterplan in mind, but if the judge were to conclude that the negative would lose the debate, the judge would then evaluate the debate without the counterplan to determine if  negative could then win the debate. This latter definition is rarely utilized, but you should be aware of this use of the conditional counterplan.

A more “limited” form of counterplan conditionality is called “dispositionality.”  Dispositionality is generally defined to mean that the negative can dispose of the counterplan unless the affirmative only argues that it is bad if the affirmative “straight turns” it – to borrow the language of disadvantages.  Many judges find “dispositionality good” (also called “dispo good”) arguments to be persuasive.

Committing to the Status of the Counterplan

Many people will ask in the cross-examination what the “status” of the counterplan is.  In other words, is it conditional, dispositional, or will the 2NR be going for it. Judges will expect you to answer this question.  Some things to consider when answering:

If you are, if you know you have no other choice, it makes sense to just say you are going for it. You will eliminate an important theory argument from the negative’s arsenal.  You will, of course, show your hand (make it obvious you are going for the counterplan in the 2NR), but depending on what other arguments you have in the debate.

If you are certain you are going to kick the counterplan, I strongly suggest reconsidering whether or not you really ought to run it.  There is generally little merit to advancing an argument in a debate that is a certain loser. Advancing a counterplan that is theoretically questionable that you know is a lose makes even less sense.


Counterplans dominate modern policy debate practice. They are important strategic weapons for the negative, and being able to defeat many different types of counterplans is essential if you want to be a good debater.  

Learning about counterplans is also important because counterplan theory has informed the development of modern day critique theory.  The subject of critique is what will be explored in the next chapter.