Overview Unit 3
Federalism: U.S. v. the States
After completing this session, you will be able to:
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.
- 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
- Discuss the role of grant-in-aid programs in the American federal
- Describe the advantages and disadvantages of a federal 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
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
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
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.