Federalism: Multiple Levels of Responsibility
The United States government is a federalist system. Simply stated, this means that the government consists of multiple levels, including both a centralized, national tier and at least one decentralized, subnational tier, and that power is shared among them. In the case of the United States, tiers include the federal, state, and local levels of government. Unlike a unitary state, a federalist system constitutionally divides sovereignty among the different governmental levels so that the policymakers at each level have final authority in some areas and can act efficiently and independently of each other. The U.S. Constitution divides governmental authority by prescribing the duties and responsibilities of the federal government and withholding both specified and unspecified powers for the states. The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution (also known as the State’s Rights Amendment), ratified in 1791, helps to clarify how this authority is divided among the levels of government. It states, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” This means that states have jurisdiction over issues that the Constitution does not explicitly grant to the federal government. This is a fundamental aspect of the Constitution; state policymakers often interpret their constitutional states’ rights quite liberally.
Because the U.S. government is one of divided powers, citizens are accountable to three levels of authority. In a federalist system, the allocation of authority among the levels may vary over time, and successful state initiatives may eventually become national policy as part of the “marble cake federalism” of the U.S. (Nathan, 2006). Alternately, the federal government may participate in and influence local policy through government grants, sanctions, and federal mandates (federal requirements for state, local, or tribal governments to expend their own resources to achieve certain goals) (Hanson, 2004). Finally, many powers, such as taxation and law formation and enforcement, are shared equally among the levels of government and may be exercised in conjunction or independently. For more information on federalism and associated court cases, see the Rockefeller Institute website provided with the Web Resources on this book’s Evolve website.
Because governmental powers and responsibilities laid out in the Constitution are imprecise and subject to interpretation, some controversy and conflict has occurred among all the levels of government, most particularly between federal and state authorities (Hanson, 2004). The U.S. Supreme Court, however, works to interpret the Constitution and maintain the balance of power among the levels of government (Hanson, 2004). It is important to understand the court’s stand on federalism and states’ rights when designing a federally administered program and planning its implementation. Court decisions may affect when, how, and by whom your program is implemented (see Chapter 7).