Enduring Debate Theory Controversies: Fiat From The ’70s To Today

As I’ve noted before, debate’s theoretical controversies tend to be more timeless than one might initially think. While researching another project, I recently found the Winter 1980 issue of the Speaker and Gavel journal. It includes fourteen articles predicting what debate would be like in the 1980s — especially issues related to the health of debate and forensics programs and proposals for reform.

One article — from Thomas Isaacson and Robert Branham — focused on the “difficulties and questions” that had emerged with the rise of the policy-making paradigm and “which remained unresolved by the decade’s end.” They predicted that these “various issues of policy fiat are likely to provide the first great test of the paradigm’s applicability and adaptation.” What issues did Isaacson and Branham identify?

  • The concept of “normal means” and how difficult it is to define
  • Durable fiat, plan implementation, and whether/how the plan could be repealed
  • How “normal means” affects the competitiveness of process counterplans
  • The appropriate scope of negative fiat, including whether the negative can fiat non-USFG counterplans
  • Affirmative fiat power over the executive or judicial branch, and how it differs from fiating the legislative branch
  • Whether counterplans are fiated policies or opportunity cost disadvantages

Forty-one years later, all of these theoretical controversies remain unresolved.

Did “the future of the policy-making paradigm” depend on resolving them? Not exactly. In retrospect, what Isaacson and Branham identified were the inherent limitations of any comprehensive debate paradigm. In the ensuing decades, debate theory became less paradigm-driven and more ad hoc — as Isaacson and Branham predicted:

The resolution of the above issues depends often upon factors which the decision-making paradigm cannot influence. Questions of fairness, quality and educational benefits of and in the activity are separate from the choice and ramifications of paradigms. When these factors become confused with certain paradigms the development of a coherent theoretical perspective is ill-served. If debates could be entirely fair, or of the highest quality and educational utility, we may discover that no “real world paradigm” is adequate to serve as a model for debate. In such a circumstance there may arise a need to develop an entirely artificial set of rules to govern a debate.

Because the “entirely artificial set of rules” that has been negotiated via ongoing theory debates is never fully established, disagreements about particular practices are unlikely to end. Even when consensuses form, they tend to be temporary; the “common sense” or “default position” of one cohort of debaters and judges can quickly change as the next cohort emerges, and once-settled understandings of debate theory are re-problematized and again the subject of heated debates.

Contemporary participants in these ongoing debate theory disputes can benefit greatly from reading about controversies from previous eras. For issues related to fiat, Isaacson and Branham’s article is an excellent resource; it is reproduced below.

Citation: Isaacson, Thomas and Robert Branham. “Policy Fiat: Theoretical Battleground of the Eighties.” Speaker and Gavel, Volume 17, Issue 2, 1980, pp. 84-91.

With the growing application of the policy-making paradigm during the 1970’s a number of difficulties and questions arose which remained unresolved by the decade’s end. If this view of debate is to continue to prosper it is likely that its proponents will need to address effectively and to resolve these issues, as well as other questions that will inevitably arise. This process of paradigmatic adaptation to emerging problems and issues is likely to provide the major theoretical battleground oi the coming decade.

Perhaps the most persuasive of the many issues in the application of policy-making to academic debate is that of the appropriate role and limits of fiat. Because debate resolutions stipulate only that a given program or condition should be adopted, focus is given not to whether the affirmative plan is probable but rather to whether it is desirable. This latter determination is based upon the hypothetical adoption of the affirmative plan regardless of the real likelihood of this occurrence. The use of fiat is designed to promote the questioning of plan desirability.

By its nature, the use of fiat violates an assumption of normalcy in that it asks us to evaluate that which will not come to pass given the composition of the present system. Two reasons seem to justify the view that assumptions of normalcy should be ignored only with great caution. One possible benefit of the policy-maker paradigm is an educational one in that its use may provide some experience and knowledge in the kinds of thought processes undertaken by real policy makers. Relevancy may be viewed as an important concern in this enterprise, placing a premium upon the ability of both teams to bring to bear “real world” issues revolving around plan adoption. If a view of fiat allows the affirmative to use a set of attitudes to fuel its inherency position and yet, possibly, to deny the negative the ability to reference these attitudes in support of plan attacks, such a use of fiat might be seen as abusive, unacademic and unfair.

One resolution of the fiat-normalcy tension has been to minimize deviations from normalcy and thereby restrict the use of fiat to only what is required to permit a reasoned debate to occur. Some form of fiat is assumed by the logical requirements of a “should”-predicted proposition. However, a variety of important theoretical disputes are generated by the inevitable tradeoff between additional fiat powers granted to the affirmative and the assumption of normalcy. To assume normalcy is to employ traditional tests of evidence and predictive analysis to decide how policy makers would deal with the questions posed by the affirmative plan. Hence, the true tradeoff is one of choosing between imposing an artificial constraint and depending upon the debaters’ skills to evaluate the issues surrounding the process of adopting the affirmative plan.

Problems of Fiat

One controversial example of a problem with the policy-making paradigm concerns the point in the policy process at which the affirmative fiat [end page 84] intervenes. The common view is that fiat assumes the adoption of the plan into law (Congressional passage and Presidential signing) of the affirmative proposal. [Footnote 1: For simplicity we shall refer only to legislative policy making. The issues surrounding executive and judicial policy making shall be addressed later.] From this perspective, the affirmative plan is the legislative output of the paradigm.

Numerous alternatives to this view of fiat could be advanced. Most restrictively, the affirmative plan may be seen as the bill placed into the hopper for possible Congressional consideration. Such an approach would render all “inherent” cases undebatable since they would never be passed—creating both feasibility and topicality problems.

Other alternatives would permit the affirmative fiat powers beyond the common view. Judges might permit the affirmative not only to adopt but also to implement its proposal through the provision of adequate funds, personnel and jurisdiction, on both an immediate and continuing basis consistent with the original intent. Given the frequency with which real policy mandates falter after adoption due to unsuccessful implementation, [Footnote 2: Eugene Bardach, The Implementation Game (Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1977).] this represents a considerable expansion of fiat. Some resolutions might require that a condition be satisfied (“Resolved: That all Americans should be gainfully employed”) whereas others refer only to plan passage (“Resolved: That a program of land use control should be enacted”). Because the affirmative has the ability to fiat the existence of the circumstances specified in the topic, the former type of resolution might permit the fiat of a fully implemented policy because the affirmative would not become topical until that end (gainful employment) is achieved. Resolutions of the latter (and considerably more common) form permit no such inference. Without passing final judgment on such a development, it could be noted easily that neither the simulation of a real world policy maker as an educational objective nor the assumption of normalcy as a practical goal are well served by the expansion of fiat to include implementation. Moreover, given the importance of implementational problems to congressional policy efforts, to fiat this issue away removes both a critical real world solvency barrier and a valuable weapon from the already sagging negative arsenal.

The most extreme expansion of fiat would permit the affirmative to avoid the entire issue of plan repeal. Implicit in the notion that the plan exists for the “foreseeable future” is the assumption that the negative cannot successfully argue that the plan would be repealed soon after adoption. The question of whether plan repeal constitutes a legitimate or important argument is entirely unresolved within the debate community at present, although the conceptualization and study of policy termination have received vigorous attention among political scientists.

As we begin a new decade, a commonly used argument suggests that the affirmative could sidestep this question by adopting a plan which specifies its own non-repealability. However, even the most sacred of legislative acts, the constitutional amendment, does not guarantee plan survival (as the proponents of alcohol prohibition discovered).

It might he proposed that the affirmative has no fiat power over post-adoption or post-implementation congressional actions. How Congress could react to a law which it opposed but somehow passed despite its own objections is probably unknowable. In such a circumstance the negative would be on persuasive argumentative ground in contending that all inherent [end page 85] cases would be quickly repealed. While benefits may be found in temporary plan adoption or the possibility that plan adoption would fuel congressional acceptance, if the affirmative needed to fall back upon one of these positions, the nature of debate would be altered drastically.

Thus, the third theoretical alternative would make plan repeal arguments unacceptable and place not only plan adoption and implementation, but also future plan survival, within the range of fiat authority. This intrusion of fiat upon an assumption of normalcy requires the debaters to evaluate a situation which may be logically impossible: a policy which continues to exist despite congressional disapproval and which cannot be altered no matter how strongly opposed. We are given little theoretical guidance to decide how this condition arose save by the magic of fanciful supposition. Discussing such an implausible combination of attitudes and structures maximizes the deviation from normalcy, serving no practical purpose while placing a premium on imaginative guesswork at the expense of reasoned advocacy. An arbitrary decision that the plan is unrepealable for, say, the first year begs the question. If fiat lasts one year, why not one century or one second? Once post-adoption fiat is allowed, the fall into this chaos is unavoidable. The debate is likely to be as heated as that between the pro- and anti-abortion forces about the precise moment of conception.

One suggested reformulation holds this entire issue to be irrelevant since the focus of debate is upon what ought to be done, what is desirable, regardless of congressional attitudes. This view is unsatisfying in that it ignores a critical component of policy examination, and also fails to solve the extant dispute. If Congress already favors the plan then the debate need not occur; if it is opposed then the issue of congressional response to plan adoption seems entirely irrelevant. This view may reduce the debate to: “Resolved that Congress should favor Plan X,” in which case a very different, and quite uninteresting set of issues would guide the debate.

The Future of Fiat

The options concerning the endpoint of fiat—placement of the bill in the hopper, adoption, implementation or assurance of future survival—all contain numerous pitfalls. Solutions are not easy to come by. This difficulty arises in large measure from the sense that fiat involves an imposition upon an unwilling Congress, creating the attitude-policy discrepancy that haunts heavy-handed fiaters.

This discrepancy seems to stem from a failure to examine the process of policy adoption. The process of congressional hearings, opinion solicitation, constituent development and activation, media coverage and expert investigation, are crucial inputs not only to policy but also to the foundation and understanding of congressional attitudes. Historically, this issue developed from a different debate question. The advent of the study, referendum and public participation counterplans created a feeling that there was something undemocratic about widespread fiat use. The affirmative responded often that fiat involved not only the assumption of plan passage but also the assumed conclusion of normal legislative processes preceding plan adoption. The notion of two affirmative debaters forcing Congress to adopt the plan at gunpoint was replaced with this saner view based upon normal pre-adoption actions. Thus, the argument of the “time advantage” from “immediate” fiat fell in favor of the realization that, like the present [end page 86] system, the affirmative plan would take time to reach its final state. Here ended the 1970’s.

It will not take long before the negative protests the apparent inconsistency involved in permitting the affirmative to assume normal channels of plan adoption with democratic inputs and processes while at the same time indicting this process under the rubric of inherency. If the affirmative is still to fiat its proposal, what set of events shall we assume preceded this action? To presume the plan appears magically is unappealing. The processes of the present system would not, apparently, produce the affirmative plan.

Two possible reformulations present themselves. The first would have the affirmative pick whatever pre-adoption processes it desired and fiat them. This seems unfair to the negative, illogical in that the process and outcome are likely to be discordant, and to violate the assumption of normalcy.

The discussion herein of a new approach to this rather awkward problem is at best tentative, but should illustrate the direction that debates about debate could take in the 1980’s. It should be noted initially there is no single means of plan adoption in actual legislative experience. Sometimes extensive hearings are held; sometimes lobbies exert great pressure; sometimes bills are compromises reached for other end; sometimes public opinion is sought and followed. At other times the opposite of these events may occur. To argue, therefore, that we assume a bill is passed “normally” gives us little guidance as to which of the many possible inputs, processes, constituencies and time constraints affect, in varying degrees, the adoption of the affirmative plan.

As an outgrowth of the search for normalcy we may hope that the adoption process was a genuine political opinion. The desire for fairness and logical consistency may require that the chosen adoption process be likely to produce the affirmative plan as an outcome. Therefore, the notion of fiat should continue to assume that the plan is adopted in the form the affirmative presents. The decision regarding what adoption process preceded its enactment is based upon a prediction: If this plan were adopted, what is the most likely prior adoption process to have caused this outcome? This determination is based not upon a theoretical imposition but rather upon whatever evidence and arguments can be offered to determine what would lead to this result. Perhaps if Congress spent more for food aid (as an affirmative plan) this would most likely have resulted from stepped-up lobbying pressure from groups devoted to this objective or, perhaps more probably, from a renewed round of famines abroad.

This view of pre-adoption processes minimizes the use of fiat, maximizes the assumption of normalcy, rewards traditionally valued debating skills and places a premium on inherency arguments as the vital instruments through which the process of affirmative plan adoption is evaluated. Finally, the issues of implementation failure and plan repeal would no longer need an artificial resolution. Given the debate over circumstances producing probable plan adoption, a set of attitudes, constituencies and other forces can be developed argumentatively and these in turn may be evaluated as to their probable effects upon post-adoption plan developments.

A few implications present themselves immediately as possible consequences of acceptance of this fiat model. First, under some circumstances the most likely pre-adoption coalition of forces leading to plan adoption would not develop for many years, while less probable means are available presently. The affirmative might reasonably be permitted to specify the [end page 87] approximate date of adoption from which an adoption process could be developed analytically. This is not consequentially different from the current practice of placing phase-in periods of varying length in the affirmative plan. Second, a wide variety of possible counterplans may become competitive due to their inconsistency with the affirmative adoption process. A negative counterplan requiring extensive public participation before action may be taken could compete with a number of affirmative plans if it could be shown that public participation would not be a likely adoption process for the affirmative plan. Current fiat theories give no guidance as to whether the affirmative may assume public participation in the adoption process and thereby render coherent competitiveness argumentation virtually impossible. Third, the set of circumstances surrounding the affirmative plan are altered considerably by this view of fiat. If an affirmative plan calling for a ban on nuclear power could be shown to have arisen only as a result of a severe nuclear accident or a dramatic rise in expert opposition to nuclear power, then a number of other issues would have to be evaluated in light of these situations. However, the fiat of the affirmative plan does not alter the probability of the nuclear accident in the pre-adoption stage, for these are not plan disadvantages. The accident serves to provide a context in which plan adoption becomes appropriate or logically consistent with policy-maker attitudes. If plan adoption stems only from a prospective power plant accident, then the issue of inherency needs further investigation given the probability that the present system, if faced with a severe accident, might naturally abandon nuclear power.

Other Problems

The I970’s produced a variety of other yet unresolved questions involving fiat and other issues. A different type of fiat question is involved in the dispute over whether either team may fiat actions by an agent other than that specified in the topic. Most commonly, this arises when the negative advocates a state or international counterplan for a topic specifying a federal agent of action. Some have argued that allowing non-federal fiat may lead to an infinite regress whereby a team could attempt to fiat good behavior on the part of criminals. If policy making is understood to refer only to governmental policy making, then this argument seems invalid in that the expansion of fiat powers would be limited to governmental agencies, which does not seem an unmanageable development.

Another objection to non-federal fiat is that it is unlike the “real world” where no policy maker operates at more than one governmental level. This raises an issue which requires independent resolution, namely, the possible distinction between a policy maker and the process of policy-making. Since the passage of any law requires action by hundreds of Congressmen as well as the President, it is apparent that debaters never try to simulate the actions of a single policy maker, but rather attempt to engage in a thought process similar to policy-making. It is not clear why the discipline of policy-making would not want to consider the question of the appropriate level at which action shall he taken. Once the paradigm clarifies exactly what it is that the debaters are simulating, this question of fiat should be resolved readily.

Another issue in fiat/topicality concerns the appropriateness of non-Congressional fiat at the federal level. In the 1979-80 season some affirmative teams chose to fiat actions by executive agencies such as the FCC while others attempted to fiat Supreme Court decisions. Considerable dispute [end page 88] arose as to the acceptability of these approaches. Objections based on topicality grounds seem unwarranted since the executive and the judiciary are as much a part of the Federal Government as is the Congress. The various components of legislative fiat seem to have obvious counter parts in executive and judicial actions. Additionally, the process of attitude determination by examining the most probable bases for an executive order or a Supreme Court decision is essentially the same as for legislative action. While the application pf legislative policy-making rules to non-legislative action may at times be rather awkward, it would seem unlikely that notions of policy-making would remain so inflexible as to deprive the affirmative of these very important topical alternatives. The use of judicial adoption and implementation is likely to increase in the 1980’s.

A final issue in fiat has arisen recently regarding the ability of the negative to fiat a counterplan. Current thinking dictates that a counterplan is competitive if adoption of the affirmative plan would eliminate any net benefits from further adoption of the counterplan as well. In other words, plan adoption renders counterplan adoption undesirable. The counterplan serves to illustrate, theoretically, one alternative policy whose adoption is foregone as a consequence of acceptance of the affirmative plan. This, however, is not distinct from the action of any other disadvantage which claims that the plan will prevent a desirable state of affairs from coming into existence. The essence of the social spending priorities disadvantage is that the affirmative plan will prevent a more desirable use of limited financial resources. Why, then, is a disadvantage whereby the alternative resource use is specified (a counterplan) different from one in which the alternative use is predicted evidentially (a traditional disadvantage)? The relevance of the alternative use of resources seems to be the same whether or not a counterplan is introduced. It may be that a counterplan does not warrant the status of fiated policy, but rather by its presentation serves as a clearer illustration of the policy precluded by the affirmative plan. Even if the logical reasoning of this argument is accepted, this elimination of negative fiat power may be opposed on fairness grounds. Given the current imbalance of debate in the affirmative’s favor and the growing acceptance and use of fairness arguments, one may predict that such theoretical disputes as the status of counterplan as disadvantage will be resolved on the basis of fairness rather than the logical relevance of the theoretical concept.

Two related questions of the policy paradigm concern the ability of either team to advocate, however temporarily, more than one policy (usually conditionally defending each of several alternatives). Similar to this question is that surrounding the acceptability of plan modification; that is, changing the text of the affirmative plan or the counterplan after problems requiring adjustment in the text arise. Three senses of plan modification exist. First, plans may contain internal review clauses and may be flexible enough to permit policy change by hypothetical future policy makers, as opposed to in-round alteration by the debaters. This approach possesses broad acceptance. Second, one may argue that Congress, having adopted the plan, could modify it to improve policy operation. This, of course, is a predictive question in which traditional uses of evidence and analysis to determine probable congressional actions are intertwined entirely with the nature of fiat employed in the round. Lastly, the debaters may decide to advocate their new policy, in the round, after some modifications of the plan as presented originally. This would appear to be largely the same issue as is involved in conditional, or multiple, policy advocacy. [end page 89]

Curiously, conditionality (or the defense of more than one policy by a given team in a single round) has come to be seen as a characteristic of hypothesis-testing and not of policy-making. There is no known reason why the policy-making paradigm precludes examination of more than one policy per team. Congress frequently considers a wide range of amendments and substitute bills. If we seek to mimic real world policy-making then multiple conditional policies should be permissible logically. Objections to conditional policies are usually based upon fairness or upon weakening of the quality of debate by spreading the limited time for analysis too thin over too many policies. This, of course, is entirely separate from the question of which paradigm is to be used.

Finally, the relationship of the plan to the resolution needs to be clarified. If the plan is the equivalent of the resolution, then the recent rise of counterwarrants may have some theoretical justification. This, of course, is quite apart from the practical implications of the counterwarrants theory. If the resolution merely serves as a guide to determine subjects the debaters may consider, then theoretical adjustment of what “voting affirmative” implies would be unnecessary. The debate community has not yet accepted this view, enabling counterwarrant strategists to play upon an apparent gap in the policy-making perspective. Acceptance of the view of debate as a process evaluating plans rather than general propositions will doubtless prompt numerous new theoretical tangles. It may, for example, be impossible to reject the counterwarrant view of debate as an argument regarding the general merits of the resolution without permitting the advocacy of topical counterplans or resorting to yet another “fairness” constraint.


The resolution of the above issues depends often upon factors which the decision-making paradigm cannot influence. Questions of fairness, quality and educational benefits of and in the activity are separate from the choice and ramifications of paradigms. When these factors become confused with certain paradigms the development of a coherent theoretical perspective is ill-served. If debates could be entirely fair, or of the highest quality and educational utility, we may discover that no “real world paradigm” is adequate to serve as a model for debate. In such a circumstance there may arise a need to develop an entirely artificial set of rules to govern a debate.

Whether the need exists to impose artificial rules, and, alternatively, whether the implications of the paradigm shall serve as our guide may represent the critical issues of the 1980’s. Obviously, a decision should provide guidance on issues such as fiat and presumption. A paradigm would also do well to give relevance to (or abolish) current debate concepts such as the plan or the counterplan. More importantly, perhaps, it would be useful if there were some similarities between the paradigm chosen and the desired features of a debate. If the competitive nature of a debate also appears in the paradigmatic model this would help provide guidance on issues such as fairness. Congressional policy-making is, in part, a competitive activity; scientific hypothesis-testing usually is not. Therefore, the nature of real world policy-making already possesses many characteristics present in an academic debate (such as time constraints). If a paradigmatic model used the same values as debate—rewarding skill and honesty while promoting fairness and quality—then the task of reconciling a paradigm with the objectives of academic debate would be eased considerably. [end page 90]

The future of the policy-making paradigm is likely to depend both upon its ability to specify in greater detail the genuine policy processes it purports to model and, where such processes seem inconsistent with desired qualities of debate, its ability to accept modification and artificial constraints. The various issues of policy fiat are likely to provide the first great test of the paradigm’s applicability and adaptation.