Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

Monthly Update sign up
Mailing List signup
3. Federalism: U.S. v. The States, Topic Overview
Topic Overview Using the Video Readings Critical Thinking Activity Web-Based Resources





Topic Overview Unit 3

Federalism: U.S. v. the States

Learning Objectives

After completing this session, you will be able to:

  • Explain how the Constitution distributes power between the national and state governments.

  • Describe the various types of federalism.

  • Explain the changes that have occurred in the federal system in the past 200 years.

  • Summarize the part played by state governments in the contemporary federal system.

  • Discuss the role of grant-in-aid programs in the American federal system.

  • Describe the advantages and disadvantages of a federal system.

Unit 3 provides an overview of the workings of federalism in the United States. In this unit, the complex and changeable relationship between the national and state governments is explored. By focusing on the conflicts between national and state powers, the unit develops a deeper understanding of nature of governmental power in the American system.

Federalism is the division of powers between a central government and regional governments. Most developed nations experience ongoing struggles over the relative powers of their central and regional governments. The United States has a federal system of government where the states and national government exercise separate powers within their own spheres of authority. Other countries with federal systems include Canada and Germany. In contrast, national governments in unitary systems retain all sovereign power over state or regional governments. An example of a unitary system is France.

The framers of the U.S. Constitution sought to create a federal system that promotes strong national power in certain spheres, yet recognizes that the states are sovereign in other spheres. In "Federalist No. 46," James Madison asserted that the states and national government "are in fact but different agents and trustees of the people, constituted with different powers." Alexander Hamilton, writing in "Federalist No. 28," suggested that both levels of government would exercise authority to the citizens' benefit: "If their [the peoples'] rights are invaded by either, they can make use of the other as the instrument of redress." However, it soon became clear that Hamilton and Madison had different ideas about how the national government should work in practice. Hamilton, along with other "federalists" including Washington, Adams, and Marshall, sought to implement an expansive interpretation of national powers at the states' expense. Madison, along with other "states' rights" advocates including Thomas Jefferson, sought to bolster state powers.

The U.S. Constitution delegates specific enumerated powers to the national government (also known as delegated powers), while reserving other powers to the states (reserved powers). Article VI of the Constitution declares the laws of the national government deriving from the Constitution to be "the supreme law of the land" which the states must obey. The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, a part of The Bill of Rights passed in 1791, attempts to limit national prerogatives over the states by declaring: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited to it by the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

While the Constitution carves out significant spheres of power for the states, it also contains several potential powers for the national government. These potential powers, also called implied powers, include Congress's power under Article I, Section 8, to make laws that are "necessary and proper" for carrying out its enumerated powers. The president's constitutional role as "commander in chief" has allowed presidents, including Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and now George W. Bush, to claim emergency powers for the national government in times of national emergency. Finally, the Supreme Court's original delegated powers in Article III were significantly enhanced in the case of Marbury v. Madison (1802), where Chief Justice John Marshall first articulated the Court's power to exercise judicial review. Judicial review is the power to strike down as unconstitutional acts of the national legislature and executive, as well as state actions.

A review of American history shows that the lines that divide power between the national government and the states are blurry, and in practice the balance of powers between the two levels of government is constantly in flux. At the same time, certain periods of federalism can be identified, and are often associated with creative (although not always precise) metaphors:

  • Dual federalism, also known as "layer cake federalism" involves clearly enumerated powers between the national and state governments, and sovereignty in equal spheres. This relationship predominated from the 1790s to 1930.

  • Cooperative federalism, also known as "marble cake federalism," involved the national and state governments sharing functions and collaborating on major national priorities. This relationship predominated between 1930 and 1960.

  • Creative federalism, also known as "picket fence federalism," predominated during the period of 1960 to 1980. This relationship was characterized by overloaded cooperation and crosscutting regulations.

  • Finally, new federalism, sometimes referred to as "on your own federalism," is characterized by further devolution of power from national to state governments, deregulation, but also increased difficulty of states to fulfill their new mandates. This period began in 1981 and continues to the present.

There are other concepts of federalism that help describe the complicated relationships between the national and state governments. Judicial federalism involves the struggle between the national and state governments over the relative constitutional powers of each, and over key constitutional provisions including the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment. With its power of judicial review, the Supreme Court is the arbiter of what the Constitution means on various questions, including federalism. Chief Justice John Marshall defended a national-supremacy view of the Constitution in the 1819 case of McCulloch v. Maryland. In that case the Supreme Court expanded the powers of Congress through a broad interpretation of its "necessary and proper" powers, and reaffirmed national supremacy by striking down Maryland's attempt to tax the Bank of the U.S.

Not all judicial decisions favor national power. In the 1997 case, Printz v. United States, for example, the court invalidated federal law that required local police to conduct background checks on all gun purchasers. The court ruled that the law violated the Tenth Amendment. Writing for the five-to-four majority, Justice Antonin Scalia declared: "The Federal government may neither issue directives requiring the states to address particular problems, nor command the states' officers, or those of their political subdivisions, to administer or enforce a Federal regulatory program.... Such commands are fundamentally incompatible with our constitutional system of dual sovereignty."

Fiscal federalism involves the offer of money from the national government to the states in the form of grants to promote national ends such as public welfare, environmental standards, and educational improvements. Until 1911, federal grants were used only to support agricultural research and education. With the passage of the Sixteenth Amendment in 1916, which legalized the federal income tax, the national government gained a significant source of revenue that it used to shape national policy in a variety of new policy areas.

Categorical grants, in which the national government provides money to the states for specific purposes, became a major policy tool of the national government during the New Deal era, and expanded rapidly during the 1960s' Great Society. But state and local officials began to criticize this method of national support because of the costly application and implementation procedures. They also complained that it was difficult to adapt the grants to local needs.

Beginning in the mid 1960s, block grants, which combined several categorical grants in broad policy areas into one general grant, became increasingly popular. States prefer block grants because they allow state officials to adapt the grants to their particular needs. Congress, however, is reluctant to use block grants because they loosen Congress's control over how the money is spent.

Revenue sharing was developed during the Nixon administration as a way to provide monies to states with no strings attached. Using statistical formulas to account for differences among states, the national government provided billions of dollars to the states until the program was abolished in 1986.
There are several pros and cons associated with U.S.-style federalism. Some advantages include a greater degree of local autonomy, more avenues for citizens to participate, and more checks and balances against concentrations of power. Some disadvantages include increased complexity of government that can produce duplication and inefficiency, and increased legal disputes between levels of government.


Site Map Home 3. Federalism: U.S. v. The States, Topic Overview Democracy In America

© Annenberg Foundation 2017. All rights reserved. Legal Policy