Chapter Study Outline

Federalism in the Constitution

  1. In a federal system, the central government shares power or functions with lower levels of government, such as regions or states.
  2. The Constitution granted a few “expressed powers” to the national government and, through the Tenth Amendment, reserved all the rest to the states.
  3. The Constitution also created obligations among the states in the full faith and credit clause and the privileges and immunities clause.
  4. Federalism and a restrictive definition of “interstate commerce” limited the national government’s control over the economy.
  5. Federalism allows a great deal of variation between states.
  6. Local government has no status in the U.S. Constitution. State legislatures created local governments, and state constitutions and laws permit local governments to take on some of the responsibilities of the state governments. Most states amended their own constitutions to give their larger cities home rule—a guarantee of noninterference in various areas of local affairs.
  7. The rise of national government activity after the New Deal did not necessarily mean that states lost power directly. Rather, the national government paid states through grants-in-aid to administer federal programs.

The Changing Relationship between the Federal Government and the States

  1. Under the traditional system of federalism, the national government was small and narrowly specialized in its functions compared with other Western nations. Most of its functions were aimed at promoting commerce.
  2. Under the traditional system, states rather than the national government did most of the fundamental governing in the country.
  3. The system of federalism limited the expansion of the national government despite economic forces and expansive interpretations of the Constitution in cases such as McCulloch v. Maryland and Gibbons v. Ogden.
  4. For most of U.S. history, the concept of interstate commerce kept the national government from regulating the economy. But in 1937, the Supreme Court converted the commerce clause from a source of limitations to a source of power for the national government.
  5. Recent years have seen a revival of interest in returning more power to the states through devolution. As states have become more capable of administering large-scale programs, the idea of devolution has become popular.

Who Does What? Public Spending and the Federal Framework

  1. Some federal programs bypass the states by sending money directly to local governments or local organizations. The states are most important, however; they are integral to federal programs such as Medicaid.
  2. The national government also imposed regulations on states and localities in areas such as environmental policy to guarantee national standards. The growth of national standards has created some new problems, such as the increase in unfunded mandates.
  3. Under President Richard Nixon, many categorical grants were combined into larger block grants that offered greater flexibility in the use of the money. The Nixon administration also developed revenue sharing that was not tied to any specific programs.
  4. Politicians from both parties regularly turn to the federal government to override decisions made by states. Likewise, when the federal government proves unable or unwilling to act, advocates and politicians try to achieve their goals in states and localities. In many cases, it is up to the courts to decide which level of government should have the final say.

Thinking Critically about the Federal System

  1. Some of the sharpest tensions among liberty, equality, and democracy are visible in debates over federalism.
  2. The Constitution limited the power of the national government to safeguard liberty, but over the course of American history, a strong national government has been an important guarantor of liberty.
  3. A key puzzle of federalism is deciding when differences across states represent the proper democratic decisions of the states and when such differences represent inequalities that should not be tolerated.