Federalism and State Powers

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How does the national government influence state policy and how has Congress expanded its powers over the states?

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The framers of the U.S. Constitution took the issue of federalism seriously; so seriously, in fact, that the issue remained largely unresolved for almost 75 years, and only with the defeat of the South in the Civil War.  Debates about the division between federal and states rights will likely never be fully resolved, as the 10th Amendment to the Constitution could be considered vague and subject to interpretation.  Whereas the original Articles of Confederation were more favorable to the notion of states rights – “Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled” – the 10th Amendment, a provision included in the Bill of Rights, states: “The powers not delegated to the United States Congress by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

Central to the debates, and to members of the Constitutional Convention’s visions for the country, was defining the precise point where the powers of the central government ends and the authorities of the state governments begin.  In the end, the balance of power needed to tilt towards the federal government if the country was to remain a cohesive whole with the rights set forth in the Constitution applicable to all citizens.  In an attempt to redress any notion of excessive concentration of power in the federal government, however, the first matter addressed in the Constitution is the list of powers granted to that branch of the federal government most directly responsive to the public.  Hence, Article I of the Constitution spells out those authorities to be held by the Legislative Branch of government.

As noted, it took a civil war for the issue of states rights to be resolved – in favor of the federal government.  Subsequent to the war, the 14th Amendment was passed, which states:

“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.”

To the extent Congress has arrogated to itself authorities at the expense of the States, it is a product of the Constitution’s tilt towards federal authorities relative to states rights and the nature of the issues confronting Congress today.  The civil rights movement demonstrated the requirement for the federal government to intervene in the states when a reasonable interpretation of the 14th Amendment allows for such involvement.  Most recently, the issue of ensuring access to health care for all U.S. citizens has involved application of the 14th Amendment to impose financial and administrative burdens on the individual states.  Federal, and congressional, powers over the states began to grow when the Confederacy lost the war and the 14th Amendment was passed.  Debates over social policies will continue to occur in the context of states rights, and members of Congress will continue to argue over the legitimate application of the federal government’s constitutional powers.  There is no question, though, that Congress’ authorities with regard to the federal budget and to interstate commerce provide it a distinct advantage in political struggles with the states.

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