Gov: Federalism Evolution

There are approximately 88,000 national, state, and local governments units in the United States. With so many different units of government at work in this country, relations among the different levels have evolved and changed over time.

The framers of the Constitution disagreed among themselves about the ideal balance of power among the different levels of government. From 1790 to 1933, national and state governments maintained a fairly strict division of powers. Political scientists refer to this system as dual federalism or layer cake federalism. In such a system, the two levels of government are part of the whole, but each has its own clearly outlined responsibilities. In the case of McCulloch v. Maryland, the Supreme Court made it clear that federal laws took precedent over state laws when the two came into conflict. Later, the Supreme Court clarified the roles of the state and national governments. The Gibbons v. Ogden decision drew a sharp line between state and federal power. The national government controls interstate commerce or trade among the states. The states control intrastate commerce or trade within their borders. This clear division of power was typical of how federalism worked.

During the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt launched New Deal programs in a new era of shared power among national, state, and local governments. Unlike in the past, officials worked together as allies to ease human suffering. Political scientists refer to this new era as one of cooperative federalism or marble cake federalism.A key ingredient in marble cake federalism was a mix of federal grants-in-aid programs. Grants-in-aid are funds given by the federal government to state and local government for specific programs, such as aid to the unemployed.

President Lyndon Johnson’s the Great Society was a set of programs designed to end poverty, eliminate racial injustice, and improve the environment. Johnson looked to state and local governments to carry out many of his new programs. Unlike the New Deal grants, Great Society grants-in-aid often came with strict regulations as to how the money could be spent. Johnson called his partnership with state and local governments creative federalism. However, political scientists prefer the more descriptive term regulated federalism. The 1960s also saw the rapid growth of unfunded mandates. These are programs and regulations imposed on state and local governments by Congress without adequate funding attached to them. Mandates put the burden of paying for the solutions on state and local governments.

While running for president, Richard Nixon promised voters that he would restore true federalism by reigning in federal power. Nixon called his pledge to return power to the states the new federalism. Political scientists call this return of power to the states devolution. President Nixon and later President Ronald Reagan tried to shift power back to the states by encouraging them to write their own recipes or policies for solving problems.The national government’s role was reduced to providing the ingredients in the form of federal funds.



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