The 'Amendment' Debater

Luqmaan Thein | 4/1/22

a·mend·ment | əˈmen(d)mənt |


a minor change or addition designed to improve a text, piece of legislation, etc.: an amendment to existing bail laws

The aforementioned definition of an “amendment” was taken from the New Oxford American Dictionary, of which the third edition was edited and published in August 2010. And, since 2010, I doubt that there is anything that has become as universally detested in Student Congress as amendments. Even from the beginning, multiple guides have warned against amendments, and hate towards it has only seemed to increase in the recently-established world of virtual debate. Because of this detestation, amendments today are so rarely used that presiding officers frantically check the NSDA’s Official Congressional Debate Guide for amendment procedure if they are called and it often becomes a waste of time when a motion to previous question on the amendment is made as soon as the amendment is introduced. With such conventions in place, it seems logical, and perhaps alluring, to completely eliminate amendments from the event altogether. So, why amendments in the first place? Ought they remain within the debate space, or should they be done away with, a relic of the past, so to speak?

To examine this question properly, it is crucial to understand why amendments exist in the first place. Aside from Student Congress being a simulation of the legislative process—which includes amendments—in the era before the fast and widespread technology we have today, it is reputed that most schools only had access to the titles of legislation to be debated. Thus, when competitors prepped a piece of legislation based on the title and were only actually able to read the legislation at the tournament, amendments were necessary so that they could quickly adapt their speeches to debate.

Speech adaptability is all well and good, but when we have attained a greater level of technological advancement than we had ten, twenty years ago, are amendments still necessary?

This question prods a larger one: how does Student Congress move forward as an event in speech and debate? Over the past two years, the vast majority of competitors have taken advantage of the online debate space to script speeches, in contrast to the abbreviated cards on legal pads in years past. Now, most competitors sit down and speak rather than standing with the three-point walk. These are not inherently bad things; however, when some people have spent their entire careers debating online with scripted speeches, the educational value of Student Congress as an activity is diminished.

Student Congress is, at its core, an activity in which students can not only develop their argumentation skills but in which they can also develop proper speaking and elocution techniques. It seeks to develop dynamism and spontaneity while cultivating critical thinking abilities and nuanced viewpoints. This is why Congress is so unique, and this is also why the continued existence of amendments is so critical to the future of the event.

Amendments demand an audacity on the part of the competitor: an audacity to take a risk and plunge into the deep; they offer a chance to stand out in a round, add to its substance, and ultimately leave with a constructive learning experience. They demand confidence, and they foster talent.

I concede to the benefits that online debate has brought, especially with regards to equity and inclusion, but an unfortunate side effect is that many competitors, especially newer ones, do not benefit as much when all they do is sit down in a chair and read a speech off a word processor. This is not to say that every single competitor from the high school classes of 2024 and 2025 does this, and sitting down is understandable—after all, many people may not have the room to do the three-point walk effectively—but they impede the ability of competitors to use Congress as a tool to succeed in the future. When so many competitors are reading speeches off word processors, even experienced ones, is it any wonder that when sponsors for an amendment are called, the only person standing is the one to move to the previous question? These side effects have ultimately led to bad habits which harm the time spent in the chamber, and the otherwise valuable lessons that could be gained from the competitive speaking and debating activity.

Ultimately, amendments are crucial for Student Congress to move forward as an activity that demands spontaneity, dynamism, and risks, much like the real world. It is time for competitors to determine their priorities: to use Congress as a learning experience or to use it as a means to gain popularity and recognition. While many of the top debaters in the country are able to properly demonstrate the abilities of public speaking and argumentation, the rest must be enabled to do so. And for them to do so, short of completely reverting back to in-person speech and debate, new mediums of expressing such skills ought—and must—be introduced on a regular basis. Or rather, in this case, old mediums must be re-introduced. Rather than using amendments to improve the text or a piece of legislation, as the New Oxford American Dictionary suggests, amendments ought to be used to improve the qualities of Congressional Debate and Congressional Debaters.