Chapter Study Outline

What Is Federalism?

Federalism is a form of government that divides sovereign power across at least two political units. In the context of the United States, power is divided among the national and state governments so that each government has some independent authority. Concurrent powers, which are areas of policy that are the shared responsibility of federal, state, and local governments, demand a great degree of negotiation among the different government units to enact policy.

  • Federalism in Comparative Perspective

    A government is federalist only if it consists of at least two autonomous political subunits. Various forms of government are observed internationally, including:

    • Unitary government: a system in which the national, centralized government holds ultimate authority. It is the most common form of government in the world.
    • Confederal government: a form of government in which states hold power over a limited national government. This was the first form of government in the United States under the Articles of Confederation.

    Unitary systems are much more common than federal systems because federal systems are complicated and involve frequent disagreements over divisions of power. Federalism also has the potential to promote regional and ethnic separation but can serve as an important tool in settling differences within a country.

  • Balancing National and State Power in the Constitution

    The Founders wanted a strong national government to provide national security and a healthy and efficient economy. If any state law or constitution conflicts with national law or the Constitution, the national perspective wins. State autonomy is protected in many ways, including its power to choose the electoral college and to amend the Constitution. Furthermore, the Tenth Amendment reserves all powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution for the states or the people, and the Eleventh Amendment prohibits citizens from suing the government of a state other than their own. Two other clauses of the Constitution are very important for federalism:

    • Full faith and credit clause: part of Article IV of the Constitution requiring that each state’s laws be honored by the other states. For example, a legal marriage in one state must be recognized across state lines.
    • Privileges and immunities clause: part of Article IV of the Constitution requiring that states must treat nonstate residents within their borders as they would treat their own residents. This was meant to promote commerce and travel between states.

The Evolving Concept of Federalism

  • Ideology

    Throughout the history of the United States, several clashes have occurred between proponents of nation-centered and state-centered federalism. Certain ideologies emerged to protect states’ rights:

    • Doctrine of interposition: the idea that if the national government passes an unconstitutional law, the people of the states (through their state legislatures) can declare the law void
    • States’ rights: the idea that states are entitled to a certain amount of self-government, free of federal government intervention
  • Dual Federalism

    From our nation’s early history through the 1930s, the country operated under dual federalism. Under dual federalism, national and state governments are seen as distinct entities providing separate services. This model limits the powers of the national government to those strictly enumerated in the Constitution. Several disputes over the nature of federalism were resolved in the following landmark Supreme Court decisions:

    • Chrisholm v. Georgia (1793): allowed citizens of one state to sue citizens of another state; led to the Eleventh Amendment, which prohibited such lawsuits
    • McCulloch v. Maryland (1819): upheld the national government’s right to create a bank and reaffirmed the idea of “national supremacy”
    • Barron v. Baltimore (1833): endorsed a notion of “dual federalism” in which the rights of a U.S. citizen under the Bill of Rights did not apply to the same person under state law
    • Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857): sided with southern states’ view that slaves were property and ruled that the Missouri Compromise violated the 5th Amendment, since making slavery illegal in some states deprived slave owners of property; contributed to the start of the Civil War
    • National Labor Relations Board v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation (1937): upheld the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 as consistent with Congress’s commerce clause powers, reversing the Court’s more narrow interpretation of that clause

    The Supreme Court also aimed to limit the power of the federal government through commerce clause powers, which delineate Congress’s ability to regulate the economy in Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution. Clear boundaries between interstate and intrastate commerce were defined, and Congress is prohibited from regulating any economic activity that occurs within a state.

  • Cooperative Federalism

    Whereas dual federalism specifically defines the boundaries of state and national responsibilities, a more nebulous form of federalism emerged during the Progressive Era and blossomed in the late 1930s with New Deal legislation. Under cooperative federalism, or “marble cake” federalism, national and state governments work together to provide services efficiently. Cooperative federalism provided a practical approach to intergovernmental relations as more complex problems arose that could not be addressed at one level of government.

    Modern federalism is better represented by a picket fence metaphor, as the lines of authority and patterns of cooperation are not as messy as those implied by the “marble cake.” Picket fence federalism is a more refined and realistic form of cooperative federalism in which policy makers within a particular policy area work together across the levels of government. Cooperative federalism is most likely to emerge within policy areas rather than across them.

Federalism Today

Although the American system of government is predominantly characterized by cooperative federalism, elements of national supremacy, dual federalism, and states’ rights are still prevalent. The current period could therefore be considered the “era of balanced federalism.”

  • Cooperative Federalism Lives On: Grants in Aid and Fiscal Federalism

    The cooperative relationship between the national and state governments is rooted in the system of transfer payments from the national government to lower levels of government, which is called fiscal federalism. Three types of grants are common under this system:

    • Categorical grants consist of federal aid to state or local governments that is provided for a specific purpose, such as a mass transit program within the transportation budget or a school lunch program within the education budget.
    • Block grants consist of federal aid provided to a state government to be spent within a certain policy area, which the state can decide how to spend within that area.
    • General revenue sharing (GRS) was a type of grant used in the 1970s and 80s in which the federal government provided state governments with funds to be spent at each state’s discretion. These grants provided states with more control over programs. Support for GRS was difficult to sustain because it was opposed by conservatives who wanted a smaller national government and by liberals who favored more targeted spending.
  • New Federalism

    Beginning in 1969 with Richard Nixon’s presidency, New Federalism attempted to shift power to the states by consolidating categorical grants into block grants and giving the states authority over programs such as welfare. This practice was continued under President Reagan, who believed that because state and local politicians were closer to the people, they would know better how to spend the money. Furthermore, under President Clinton, Congress made it more difficult to impose unfunded mandates, federal laws that require the states to do certain things but do not provide state governments with funding to implement these policies. Although these changes were favorable for states, the balance of power between national and state government has not been affected.

  • National Supremacy Reigns? The Rise of Coercive Federalism

    Despite the overall shift toward cooperative federalism, the role of national government is reinforced by three characteristics of American politics: (1) turning to national government in times of crisis and war, (2) the rights revolution of the 1950s and 60s, and Great Society programs of the 1960s, and (3) the rise of coercive federalism. Coercive federalism is a form of federalism in which the federal government pressures the states to change their policies by using regulations, mandates, and conditions (often involving threats to withdraw federal funding). Coercion also exists in the form of federal preemptions, impositions of national priorities on the states through national legislation that is based on the Constitution’s supremacy clause.

    A significant shift toward national power took place during the presidency of George W. Bush. National power emerged in areas that had been controlled by states, including mandates and preemptions in education testing, sales tax collection, emergency management, infrastructure, and elections administration. This is noteworthy because the shift took place under Republicans, who generally favor states’ rights.

  • The States Fight Back

    States appear to be reversing their traditional role of resisting change and protecting the status quo. In recent years, states have taken the lead over the federal government to address issues such as pollution and global warming. Motivation for state leadership can be explained by competitive federalism, a form of federalism in which states compete to attract businesses and jobs through the policies they adopt. Supporters point out that such competition is also a check on tyranny because people will move to a different state if they do not like a state’s policies.

    Despite the positive outcomes of competitive federalism, states may also be driven to compete in a negative way. For instance, when states compete for businesses and jobs, they may eliminate environmental regulations or employee benefits to keep expenses low.

Fighting for States’ Rights: The Role of the Modern Supreme Court

The Supreme Court, in recent years, has ruled in favor of state power. Between the 1980s and 90s, the Supreme Court invalidated more national laws on federalist grounds than in the previous two centuries.

  • The 10th Amendment

    The 10th Amendment ensures that all powers not delegated to the national government are reserved to the states or to the people. The Supreme Court has sought to protect this amendment in recent years by restricting Congress’s power. For example, when seeking to limit the power of states, Congress must provide an unambiguous statement of its intent to overrule state authority.

  • The 14th Amendment

    Section 1 of the 14th Amendment guarantees that no state shall make or enforce any law depriving any person of “life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” or denying any person the “equal protection of the laws,” while Section 5 empowers Congress “to enforce” those guarantees by “appropriate legislation.” Although narrowly interpreted throughout the nineteenth century, the Supreme Court leaned toward a broad interpretation during the twentieth century, giving Congress discretion to remedy bad state laws. In the federalism revolution of the 1990s, however, the Supreme Court again favored a narrow interpretation of the amendment. For example, in 1997, it struck down the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, ruling that it was an overly broad attempt to prohibit state-sponsored harassment based on religion. This case offers an example of remedial legislation, whereby national laws address discriminatory state laws. The logic behind remedial legislation has also been applied to the 11th Amendment, which was originally interpreted to mean that state governments could not be sued by residents of other states. Recently, however, the Supreme Court expanded the reach of the 11th Amendment through the concept of states’ sovereign immunity, which protects states from a much broader range of lawsuits in state and federal court unless the state consents to the suit.

  • The Commerce Clause

    The commerce clause is part of Article 1, Section 8, of the Constitution that gives Congress “the power to regulate Commerce . . . among the several States.” In United States v. Lopez (1995), Congress cited its control over interstate commerce as a means to regulate gun control within schools. The Supreme Court ruled against Congress, stating that Congress would have to demonstrate that the law in question was explicitly related to the commerce clause.

Assessing Federalism

An evaluation of federalism must consider the advantages and disadvantages for our political system. The advantages of strong state rights include: (1) states can be laboratories for democracy, (2) state and local governments are closer to the people, (3) states provide more access to the political system, and (4) states provide an important check on national power.

Of course, there are also problems associated with a federalist system that gives too much power to the states: (1) unequal distribution of resources across the states, (2) unequal protection for civil rights, and (3) competitive federalism, which produces a “race to the bottom.”