Gov: Federalism

The adoption of a federalist system of government by the framers of the Constitution was not so much a choice as a necessity. The delegates attending the Constitutional Convention in 1787 knew full well that the thirteen states would be reluctant to give up any real power to a national government. As a result, the framers were careful to spell out how power should be divided among the national government and state governments.

The U.S. Constitution divides powers between the national and state governments into three categories: expressed, concurrent, and reserved. Expressed powers are powers specifically granted to the national government. The Constitution lists seventeen of these specific powers. Some powers, such as to coin money or to make treaties with other countries, are delegated exclusively to the national government. Other powers, such as to levy taxes, are concurrent powers shared by the national and state governments. The Constitution says little about the powers reserved by states, but some are placed on state governments.

For example, the Full Faith and Credit Clause insists that states recognize, honor, and enforce one another’s public actions. Because of this clause, a driver license issued in one state is recognized as legal in any other state. Additionally, the Privileges and Immunities Clause says a state cannot discriminate against residents of other states or give its own residents special privileges. This means that if someone moves to a new state, they will enjoy all of the rights given to any other citizen of that state. The Tenth Amendment further clarifies the constitutional division of powers by declaring that powers not specifically delegated to the national government are reserved for the states. These reserved powers include overseeing public schools, regulating businesses, and protecting state resources. The states also reserve the power to establish and regulate local governments.

The benefits of federalism are:

Federalism protects against the tyranny of the majority. By dividing power among several units of government, federalism makes it difficult for a majority to trample the rights of a minority.

Federalism promotes unity without imposing uniformity. Federalism allows groups with different values and different ways of life to live together in peace. Federalism allows states to pass laws that reflect the needs and goals of their citizens while still remaining part of the union of states.For example, all states support public education for young people. But how schools are funded and regulated differs from state to state depending on local preferences.

 Federalism creates laboratories for policy experiments. The flexibility of federalism allows states to act as testing grounds for innovative solutions to common problems. If a state tries a new idea and succeeds, other states will follow suit. If an experimental policy fails, the problems that result are limited to one state. A failure may provide lessons to others about better ways to implement policies.

Federalism encourages political participation. Federalism provides an opportunity for people to be involved in the political process closer to home than the nation’s capital.

For all the benefits, there are drawbacks to a federal system. One is the lack of consistency of laws and policies from state to state. This can create problems when people move from state to state. Another drawback of the federal system is the tension it sometimes creates between state and federal officials. The Constitution does not always draw a clear dividing line between national and state powers.



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