How does the Constitution address federalism, and how has the power relationship between the states and national governments evolved over the course of American history? What specific sections of...

How does the Constitution address federalism, and how has the power relationship between the states and national governments evolved over the course of American history? What specific sections of the Constitution address the topic of federalism, and how can we see the evolution of federalism through relevant court cases, the Civil War, the New Deal, the Civil Rights Movement, fiscal federalism, etc?

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kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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The Founding Fathers, as has been amply documented, were understandably conflicted about precisely where to draw some of the lines separating branches of government, as well as the lines separating the federal government from the states.  The Articles of Confederation, drafted in 1776, reflected these debates particularly with respect to the balance between central authorities and those authorities distributed or left to individual states, at that time the 13 original colonies.  It would not be long, however, before many of the leading statesmen of the time, in effect, “the Founders,” would decide that the Articles tilted too heavily in the direction of the states at the expense of the central, or federal, authorities needed to ensure both that the emerging country would prove cohesive and that the underlying principles of the democratic system being constructed would hold sway throughout the entire nation.  The Constitution that was signed on September 17, 1787, however did not adequately reflect the authors’ intentions with respect to federalism.  While the Constitution did specify the responsibilities of each branch of the federal government in Articles I-III, for example, the responsibilities of the U.S. Congress for declaring war, regulating interstate commerce, and levying taxes specified in Article I, it did not specify the authorities left to the states.  A contributing factor in this ambiguity was the enduring controversy over the issue of slavery, which the southern colonies/states continued to argue was a matter best left to individual states.  We all know how that turned out, when, almost a century later, the civil war broke out, but the contentiousness of the issue of slavery would remain a sore point for many years to come.

As everybody knows, the Bill of Rights is comprised of the first ten amendments to the Constitution, meaning they were added subsequent to the original document’s signing.  The existence of amendments in itself signifies the protracted nature of the process by which the Constitution came to exist in its present form.  For purposes of discussion, it is the 10th Amendment that the authors hoped would address the remaining ambiguity in the issue of federalism.  That amendment 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.”

In other words, any issue not specifically addressed in the Constitution, including its amendments, was left to the individual states to decide for themselves.  As noted in the reference to the Civil War, however, heated debates regarding certain issues remained outstanding, including slavery and, subsequent to the war’s end, civil rights, as well as more contemporary issues like abortion.  With the South’s defeat in the war, and the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862 having abolished slavery in all the states comprising the U.S.A., the passage of the 14th Amendment was intended to definitively resolve the debate over states’ rights once and for all.  Section I of that amendment stated:

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

The 14th Amendment was particularly important in address one of the most regrettable decisions in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court, which was established in Article III of the Constitution.  The Court’s 1857 decision in Dred Scott V. Sandford delegitimized the position of blacks in the United States, whether captive or free, and remained a stain on the country’s moral fabric until the 14th Amendment’s passage. 

With respect to the issue of civil rights, a series of laws passed throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries would reflect the continuing contentiousness of that particular matter.  Civil Rights Acts were passed in 1866, 1875, 1964, and 1968, each representing an incremental improvement in a situation that survived as this country’s most enduring moral quandary.  It was the 1964 act, though, that represented what was hoped would be the definitive conclusion of the United States’ struggle to reconcile the rights of all of its citizens with the rights of individual states to govern themselves. 

The New Deal represented another major challenge to the concept of federalism in the degree to which the balance of power between the federal and state governments shifted towards the former.  The scale of President Roosevelt’s economic and industrial program to lift the country out of the depths of the Great Depression represented an enormous transition in the role of the federal government in the lives of citizens across the nation, at least with respect to the creation of social welfare programs that consolidated the authorities over such programs in Washington, D.C.  What was previously known in the United States as a system of “dual federalism” in which the balance of power was presumably largely equal was not tipped in the direction of the federal government.  “Dual federalism,” as a concept, was replaced by “cooperative federalism,” in recognition of this enduring shift in the balance between Washington, D.C. and the individual states and the increasing level of integration between the two political entities.

With respect to fiscal matters, the Constitution, as originally constructed, definitely ascribed to the federal government the powers over “the purse.”  In effect, the Article I provisions granting to the Congress the power  “lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises,”  “to borrow money on the credit of the United States,” and to “coin money” all are intended to consolidate as much power as possible over financial matters in the federal government. [See Section 8 of Article I]  Not to be dismissed, however, is the fact that those powers were given to the Congress, not to the Executive (the powers of which are described in Article II), and that the Congress, particularly the House of Representatives, which the Constitution specifies must be where “all Bills for raising revenue” and spending bills originate, was designed to be the single most representative body within the newly-established federal government.  Therefore, the Framers of the Constitution clearly intended that the will of the people be reflected in matters pertaining to the federal budget, even though the federal government would be repository of most revenues raised at the expense of that public.

The issue of federalism remains a topic of debate today.  As mentioned above, the issue of reproductive rights, particularly as exemplified in the landmark Roe v. Wade decision of 1973, is a continuing point of contention between individual states like Missouri that have tried to impose strict restrictions on access to abortion but that have been repeatedly blocked in doing so by that Supreme Court decision protecting a woman’s right to an abortion, and the federal government.  The tug-of-war between federal and state governments will likely continue in perpetuity.

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Federalism simply refers to the type of government "in which power is divided between a central government and regional governments" ("Chapter 3: Federalism and the Separation of Powers"). Hence, the U.S. has both the federal government and state governments. The Constitution addresses federalism by "creating two sovereign powers--the national government and the state governments" ("Chapter 3"). Creating two sovereign governments helps prevent one from becoming dominant over the other. It is especially the 10th Amendment that allows for our government to be a federation because the 10th Amendment grants all powers to the states that have not already been granted to the federal government and have also not already been prohibited to the states ("Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution"). For example, states have the power to create local governments, issue licenses, regulate commerce, hold elections, ratify Constitutional Amendments, oversee public health and safety, and institute laws, such as driving laws and the legal drinking age ("Federalism: Role on State Powers"). Hence, since the states have been granted, in some cases, more power to govern than the federal government, we can clearly see how the Constitution worked to establish a federation.

The idea of what a federation is has certainly evolved as political philosophy has evolved. Our founding fathers first wanted a unified government, but when that failed, they wanted a dual federation. Under dual federalism, the divisions between state and federal power are much more distinct, and the federal government clearly has much more limited power. Most power rests with the states. The Constitution was interpreted in view of dual federalism from 1789 to 1937 and with that came strict interpretations of elements of the Constitution, such as the 10th Amendment, the Supremacy Clause, the Necessary and Proper Clause, and the Commerce Clause ("Chapter 3"; "Constitutional Topic: Federalism"). After 1937, two years into World War II, political philosophy changed as a response to both the Great Depression and World War II, and our government started using a more cooperative federalism ("Chapter 3"). Under cooperative federalism, government is seen as a partnership between the state and federal governments, and the dividing lines of authority become somewhat blurry ("Chapter 3"). In fact, under cooperative federalism, the federal government can be seen as the supreme authority over the states ("Constitutional Topic"). The change to cooperative federalism began manifesting when the federal government started granting federal aid to states under the New Deal, which expanded the federal government's traditional power ("Chapter 3").

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