In the United States there are many governments. So one question is: which level of government — national (federal) or state — has what powers over what people? In the book’s discussion, “Is marijuana legal in some states, or not? Federalism addresses this question.

Federalism is a political system which distributes powers between a central (national or “federal”) government and subdivision (states, provinces, etc.) governments, giving clearly defined functions to each.  A modern view of federalism is that national and regional governments have shared powers; e.g., for taxation, law enforcement, etc.
Examples: United States, Canada, Germany, Australia.

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There are two other systems of government across the world (see Figure 2-1):

*A unitary political system gives most powers to the national government with regional governments (states) serving more as administrative arms of national government.
Examples: United Kingdom, France, Israel, Philippines; most countries of the world.

*A confederation (or confederal government or confederacy) gives most powers to state (regional) governments.  Examples include the United States under the Articles of Confederation (1781-1788); and the United Nations and the European Union (today).

Why federalism? What are the Advantages of Federalism?

See Table 2-1

  1. One benefit is that dividing powers limits any concentration of power (tyranny) into the hands of a few. Under the United States’ very early confederal governmental system, the national government was too weak to accomplish much in the way of benefits, like protection against foreign powers so states protected their own citizens. Federalism provided for a more effective central government while maintaining a degree of state autonomy.
  2. Federalism allows unity without uniformity. States can differ in policy areas such as gun control, and welfare benefits, taxation and government spending. People and organizations are under the same general national guidelines but states can opt in many areas to shape individual policies that meet their unique characteristics.
  3. Federalism encourages experimentation on a smaller scale. Examples include welfare reforms-the Welfare Reform Act of 1996 came after states like Wisconsin experimented with alternatives; health care delivery reforms; air pollution controls; and other policies.
  4. Federalism allow the creation of governmentscloser to the people and allows people more access and opportunities for participation.

What are the disadvantages of federalism?

  1. American values include equality and fairness, but under federalism, what public services, like public education, people have is determined by the wealth of their state and local governments.
  2. Often state governments make decisions and ignore the externalities, or spillover, effects of their actions on other states.
  3. Federalism is a complicated system, and people may not know which government to hold responsible at times.  There can be also duplication of governmental services.
  4. Coordination of services is very hard since in an urbanized USA needs and wants are area-wide; that is, they don’t correspond to the legal jurisdictions.
  5. Federalism can create conflict; rarely do things stay confined to one state.  And the U.S. Constitution is not always clear in what level of government may do what things.

Federalism in the U.S. Constitution

See Table 2-2 and Figure 2-2

The United States Constitution spells out the powers of national government and state governments:

* In Article VI, Section 2, the supremacy clause states that the Constitution “shall be the supreme law of the land” and takes precedence over both national laws and state laws. 

*Express powers (also called enumerated or delegated or exclusive powers) belonging to national government are in the US Constitution, Article 1, Sect.8, which covers Congress (the lawmakers for national government). 

*Congress also has implied powers through the “necessary and proper clause” found at the end of Article 1, Section 8.  The U. S. Supreme Court, through an early case McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), affirmed the “implied powers” doctrine.

The United States Constitution gives states reserved powers through the 10th Amendment, which states that powers not given to the national government nor prohibited to the states by the Constitution are given to each state. States are also bound to recognize each other state’s public records and acts as valid (the “full faith and credit clause”).  States are prohibited from discriminating against citizens of other states (the “privileges and immunities clause”).

Concurrent powers areexercised by both levels of government, like spending and taxation.  These are the important provisions in the U. S. Constitution that govern national and state government powers. The Constitution does not give specific details much of the time, and throughout American history there have been different philosophies and practices of federalism:

The Development of Federalism

*During the earliest period of dual federalism, the national and state governments were responsible for policy in their own policy areas; that is, they had separate and distinct jurisdictions and responsibilities (1789 – 1933). This was a strong period for arguing that states have rights as independent political powers.

*During the period of cooperative federalism, national government powers expanded into areas previously left to the states (1933 – approx.mid-1960’s). National powers expanded first during the New Deal (1930s) in response to the Great Depression.

*Centralized federalism (1964-1980) National powers expanded further in the second half of the 1960’s with the Great Society programs. These include Medicare, Medicaid, poverty, consumer, worker, and environmental protection programs. This philosophy of federalism is that the two governmental levels, national and state, must work together. This was also the period of federal grants-in-aid to state and local governments.  The philosophy of federalism was that national government should take a leading role in setting policy with state and local governments helping to implement the policies.

*New federalism (1980-2002) is characterized by devolution (the returning of power to the states). Any federal grants of money were in more broadly defined areas, the specific needs of which to be determined by states.  Relationships between federal and state governments can be viewed as an interdependent network of political relationships.

* Ad hoc federalism (2002- present), is the process of choosing a state-centered or national-centered form of federalism based on political/partisan convenience.

Varieties of Federalism

See Figure 2-3

Scholars have invented other names for the different time periods of federalism:
*Layer-cake federalism is connected with dual federalism.  Layer-cake federalism’s top layer is national (federal) government, which oversees policy affecting the entire nation, and the layer below is state government, which has control over policies affecting it (and if you want, a third layer on the bottom, local governments which have limited powers to make policy affecting their jurisdictions).
*Marble-cake federalism, in the cooperative phase of federalism, refers to the fact that both national and state governments are involved in specific areas of policy.
*Picket-fence federalism refers to the centralized phase of federalism: the top horizontal slat is national government, the middle slat is state, and the bottom slat is local government while the vertical slats represent different policy areas.  States often opposed picket-fence federalism because the national government would often bypass the state and deal directly with local governments although the U. S. Constitution only covers relationships between national and state governments.

Federal grants and Mandates

There are two basic types of grants of money from national government:
*categorical-formula grants: grants of money for specific activities (e.g., health care for over 65)
*block grants: grants of money for broader areas of concern (e.g., health).

National government grants often heavily influence of control state policies (e.g., highway funds are used to enforce drinking age limits and seat belt laws).

Federal mandates are national lawsthat require compliance by states but often do not provide funding (unfunded mandates).  State governments complain about these laws since they essentially overrule what state governments might do about a policy and cost the states money to enforce.  Examples include Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA); Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations; and the No Child Left Behind Act (there are testing requirements, but little funding to pay for this testing).

The ongoing federalism debate: Since the U. S. Constitution does not always provide specific details for what national government and state governments may do, there has always been debate over inter-governmental relationships and obligations.  The debate continues to be about centralization v. decentralization (devolution).

Terms and Ideas


Unitary political system
Centralization of governmental powers
Confederal political system (Confederation)
McCulloch v. Maryland (1819)
U.S. Constitution

Supremacy clause (Article VI, Section 2)
Express powers (enumerated or delegated or exclusive powers) of Congress-Article I, Sect. 8
“necessary and proper clause” establishing Congressional implied powers (Article I, Section 8)
Reserved powers of the states (Amendment 10)
“full faith and credit clause”
“privileges and immunities clause”
Concurrent powers Advantages of federalism Disadvantages of federalism
Dual federalism
Cooperative federalism
Centralized federalism
New federalism (competitive federalism)

Ad hoc federalism Devolution
Federal grants: categorical grants, block grants Mandates

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