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Following ratification of the U.S. Constitution, political philosophers described the federalism inherent in the document as America’s hallmark contribution to the eighteenth century science of political governance.
Defined as a system of dual sovereignty, federalism envisions a constitutional order in which national and state governments each possess their own sphere of autonomy and authority. Whereas the concept of separation of powers operates on a horizontal level, ensuring the autonomy of the different branches (legislative, executive and judicial) within any one level of government (state or national), federalism operates vertically, ensuring the autonomy of those different levels. Both federalism and separation of powers act as a coordinated system of checks and balances. Separation of powers checks the various branches, while federalism checks the different levels of government. Under federalism, autonomous states with their own sphere of power can help prevent a national government from abusing its power.
American federalism was not so much a deliberate political theory as it was a development of history. Throughout the colonial period, federalism evolved out of necessity. Because of the great distance between London and the American colonies, local government arose to fill the void. While the British parliament provided centralizing governance, local and colonial governments in America provided the day-to-day governance. This scheme not only allowed the colonists to address their own local concerns, it supplied a political experience and structure that would be invaluable once independence from England was declared. Consequently, when America designed its own constitutional structure, federalism naturally formed a vital foundation of that structure, ensuring the dual sovereignty of state and national governments.
Although there is no specific federalism provision in the U.S. Constitution, just as there is no specific separation of powers provision, federalism pervades the constitutional structure, which recognizes the autonomy of the states while also limiting the ability of the federal government to infringe on that autonomy. The closest to a specific federalism provision in the U.S. Constitution is the Tenth Amendment, which states that all powers not specifically granted to the federal government are reserved to the states.
The U.S. Senate, prior to the Seventeenth Amendment providing for popular election of senators, once reflected federalism concerns. Under the original Constitution, the House of Representatives was directly elected by the voters, but the Senate was chosen by the state legislatures. This system gave states a greater voice in the makeup of the federal government. It also created a sharper distinction and hence balancing function between the state-chosen Senate and the popularly-elected House.
Aside from its historical basis in the American experience, federalism also served several important values. Federalism provides a check on the abuse of national power. It also supports the diversity of a sprawling nation. Diverse state and local populations can shape local policy to their particular interests, whereas the federal government can only enact a one-size-fits-all policy for the entire nation.
Federalism enhances political accountability and trust. The smaller the governmental unit, the closer it is to the electorate and the more accountable it is. This higher degree of accountability in turn builds a higher level of trust in government. And finally, federalism creates a more flexible system of political governance, since smaller government units are more able to experiment in their policies.
From its colonial beginnings until the early twentieth century, the American political system rested on a strong belief in federalism. But this abruptly changed in the 1930s with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal agenda, which greatly boosted national power at the expense of the states. Congress acquiesced in this expansion of the national executive branch, as did the Supreme Court, which essentially abandoned one hundred and fifty years of constitutional jurisprudence in allowing such an expansion.
For nearly a half-century after this New Deal constitutional revolution, the Court continued to disregard the federalism mandates of the Constitution. Not until the mid-1990s did the Court reconnect with federalism. Dubbed by the media as “the federalism revolution,” the Court’s revival of constitutional federalism coincided with President Bill Clinton’s assertion that “the era of big government is over.” Nonetheless, the Court’s “federalism revolution” attracted intense opposition from the advocates of an all-powerful central government. These advocates opposed federalism because of the potential limits it places on the unrestrained growth of the national government.
In U.S. v. Lopez, the Court upheld federalism by ruling that Congress could not invade areas traditionally controlled by state and local governments. The Court struck down a federal law prohibiting guns within a certain distance of a school, ruling that schools were historically state and local concerns. This decision contrasted with the New Deal-era decision in Wickard v. Filburn, where the Court ignored all distinctions between local and national. In Wickard, the Court held that a farmer’s growing of wheat on his own land for his own use constituted an act of interstate commerce legitimately regulated by Congress.
Federalism not only limits the reach of the national government, it also allocates the use of legislative power among the different levels of government. Legislative power is shared through a system of dual sovereignty between state and national governments, and Congress cannot use its power to threaten the autonomy of the other levels of government.
Patrick Garry is professor of law at the University of South Dakota and is the author of Limited Government and the Bill of Rights and The False Promise of Big Government: How Washington Helps the Rich and Hurts the Poor.
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