Federalism in the United States
Federalism is among the most important and novel concepts of the American constitution, even though the word does not appear in the document. Federalism may be defined as a governance system that permits two or several entities to share the control of a given geographical entities. Put differently, federalism allows for the sharing of power between the national (or federal), state, and sometimes various assortments of local governments (Narang 195). This differs from a unitary form of government in which only one entity wields power. It also differs from a confederation, which consists of an alliance between independent government units. In the United States, the states existed before the creation of a federal government and, therefore, the American Constitution is innately designed with the tensions resulting from this struggle.
Federalism and the Purpose of applying it to a Governmental Structure
As noted previously, federalism is a governance system in which a given territory is governed by more than one level of government. In general, a dominant national or federal government is tasked with governing issues affecting the entire country while the smaller subdivisions (consisting of state and local governments) govern matters of domestic concern. Both the federal and the smaller government units have legislative powers and both enjoy some degree of autonomy. Federalism is applied to a government structure for a number of reasons. First, it provides a means of constitutional organization that promotes action through shared government in achieving common purposes, along with autonomous action by lower government units in maintaining their distinctiveness. Secondly, it permits regional self-rule, allows both the rulers and the governed to preserve their liberties, and serves as a vehicle for versatile response to local problems (Zimmerman 80). These aspects, broadly construe, reduce the possibility of conflicts between diverse communities. In addition, federal civil order makes possible inter-jurisdictional competition, which promotes innovations and limits the overall growth of the government.
How Federalism is applied in the U.S.
The federal system in the United States consists of a federal (national) government and the various state governments (Bardes et al. 77). However, it is imperative to note that because the constitution is silent on local governments (counties and cities), county and city governments are termed as “creatures of state government,” which means that state governments have the authority to give and take away powers from local governments. The Constitution of the United States grants the federal government powers over matters of national concern. Conversely, state governments enjoy jurisdiction over matters of local or domestic concern. Even though the federal government has the power to enact laws that govern the whole country, its powers are limited to those exclusively assigned to it as per the Constitution.
The History of American federalism since 1789
Federalism has metamorphosed over the course of the history of the United States. At various junctures in time, the balance and limits between the state and federal government has changed considerably. In sum, federalism in the United States has evolved through three distinct stages since 1789. These include dual federalism (1789 – 1945), cooperative federalism (1945 –1969), and new federalism (1969–present) (Bowman and Richard 35; Dautrich and David 62).
Dual Federalism (1789 – 1945)
This period describes the type of federalism that existed during the first 150 years following the establishment of the American republic, around 1789 through the Second World War. The Constitution delineated provisions for two levels of government, namely the national (federal) and state governments. Principally, the national government was responsible for the formulation of foreign policy, issues of national defense, as well as the promotion of commerce while the state governments were responsible for economic regulation, local issues, and criminal law (Dautrich and David 62).
Cooperative Federalism (1945 –1969)
During this period, the federal government was integrated with the local and state governments, which made it extremely difficult to distinguish the boundaries of the various levels of government in terms of responsibility. For instance, local and state governments administered a number of federal programs, and state governments relied heavily of federal funding to sustain their own programs. This form of federalism was also known as marble-cake federalism.
New Federalism (1969–Present)
New federalism refers to a political philosophy that began in 1969, and which champions for the transfer of some powers from the national to the state governments. Support for this new philosophy of devolution began with President Richard Nixon, and every president has since continued this support, with widespread calls for the return of certain powers to local and state governments.
The Role of the Supreme Court in the Development of American Federalism
The Supreme Court has played various roles in the development of federalism in the United States. During the American civil war, the U.S. Supreme Court frequently cited federalism considerations in limiting the control of the federal government over the economy. However, two developments, namely the New Deal (which sought to tackle the economic crisis occasioned by the great depression) and the increasing view of the federal government as a defender and promoter of civil rights and liberties during two decades between 1950 and 1970, led to the expansion of the functions of the federal government. The Supreme Court legitimizes this expanded role. Beginning 1937, the court has permitted the federal government to delineate the scope of its authority. Since the landmark ruling in Marbury v. Madison, the Court has established itself as the final decision maker on issues relating to the constitutionality of Congressional legislation (McNeese 61). John Marshall’s views, as well as the views of Supreme Court in general, have often favored the supremacy of federal authority over state and local authorities.
The principle of constitutional limitation of government powers, of vertical and horizontal separation of power, and of a robust national government capable of performing necessary tasks but not strong enough to threaten the civil rights and liberties of citizens is perhaps better embodied in American federalism. Federalism in the United States conveys a high regard for diversity at the local and regional level, a system that is extensively varied yet able to achieve national unity.
Bardes, Barbara A. et al. American Government and Politics Today: The Essentials. St. Paul, MN: West Pub, 2015. Print.
Bowman, Ann O. M, and Richard C. Kearney. State and Local Government: The Essentials. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2014. Print.
Dautrich, Kenneth, and David A. Yalof. American Government: Historical, Popular, and Global Perspectives : Brief Version. Boston, MA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2012. Print.
McNeese, Tim. The U.S. Constitution. St. Louis, MO: Milliken Pub, 2001. Print.
Narang, Amarjit S. “Federalism in India During the Nehru and Post-Nehru Periods: Limitations and Challenges.” South Asian Survey. 19.2 (2014): 189-205. Print.
Zimmerman, Joseph F. Contemporary American Federalism: The Growth of National Power. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2009. Print.
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