Federalism in Action 

Federalism Today

Despite a decrease in states' authority in recent years and a noticeable shift towards a more centralized government, the 50 states still hold significant importance in US politics. 

They retain crucial roles in various aspects, including: 

- Legislating on a wide range of issues like local taxes and abortion access. Some conservative states, such as North Dakota and Arkansas, have implemented strict abortion regulations. 

- The death penalty is predominantly determined by individual states. A severe crime committed in one state, such as Texas, may result in the death penalty, while in a neighboring state, the perpetrator could receive a life sentence without parole. This aspect underscores the critical role of states in life-or-death situations within the US federal system.

 - The presidential election process is state-centric, with the Electoral College system allowing each state to elect its Electoral College voters who then select the president. The number of electors per state is proportional to the size of its congressional delegation. 

- States oversee and manage elections, deciding on matters such as caucus or primary elections to choose party candidates. Significant issues like mail-in voting, voter identification laws, and direct democracy are determined at the state level. 

During times of crisis, states and their governors often lead the response efforts, as seen in instances like Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic. While states play a crucial role in managing disasters, such events also emphasize the limitations of states in handling crises, necessitating national involvement through financial assistance and support from federal agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States response was criticized for lacking centralized coordination. President Trump and governors were often seen pointing fingers at each other for the shortage of essential equipment like ventilators and PPE. Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker openly criticized Trump's handling of the crisis, labeling it as incompetent. He emphasized the importance of federal support by questioning the necessity of the Federal Emergency Management Agency if states were expected to handle everything independently. In return, Trump targeted certain Democratic governors for the speed of their reaction, suggesting that they should have been better prepared before the crisis. The dynamic between individual states and the federal government was not only about federalism but often intertwined with national party politics. Different states displayed varying responses to the pandemic, with some moving quickly to implement lockdown measures while others, like Florida, were slower to act. Notably, Arkansas did not even impose a complete lockdown directive.

The COVID-19 crisis sparked a notable power struggle between federal and state authorities. On April 13, 2020, Trump asserted his total authority as President of the United States when discussing the easing of lockdown measures. He claimed the ability to dictate national events above individual states and their governors. Governor Cuomo of New York, the hardest-hit state at the time, countered Trump's statement by emphasizing that the Constitution does not establish a monarchy but rather a presidency. This ongoing debate revolves around the division of power outlined in the Constitution.

Recent debates regarding the central government's role have shifted towards the nature of interference rather than the extent of involvement in individual states' affairs. Democrats support federal intervention in healthcare expansion through Obamacare but strongly oppose states limiting abortion access. Conversely, Republicans back federal action against sanctuary cities hindering efforts to control illegal immigration but support states enacting 'bathroom bills' that restrict transgender rights. Overall, politicians from both sides advocate for states' rights unless they go against certain beliefs.

Federalism: Case study The Federalist Society 

Power Point Federalism 

Civil Rights 

Passing a federal budget, raising revenue, and coining money 


Required Court Cases

McCulloch v Maryland (1819)

Essential Fact: Maryland imposed a state tax on the United States National Bank located in that state.

Constitutional Issue: Whether the necessary and proper clause enabled the United States to create a national bank and whether Maryland had the right to tax it.

Unanimous Decision: The Supreme Court ruled that a state did not have the right to tax a federal institution, finding that “the power to tax is the power to destroy.”

United States v Lopez (1995)

Essential Fact: The United States Congress passed the Gun-Free School Zone Safety Act, which made the possession of a gun within a thousand yards of a school a federal crime.

Constitutional Issue: Did Congress overstep its Commerce Authority in Article 1 Section 8 of the Constitution?

Majority Decision: In a 5–4 decision, the court held that enforcement of such an act comes under the authority of the states.

Minority Opinion: The minority believed the necessary and proper clause gave Congress the right to pass the law because educational benefits impact the entire nation.

State Governments

Perhaps the most significant statement that defines the relationship of the federal government to the states is found in Article VI. The supremacy clause asserts that “the Constitution, and the laws of the United States . . . shall be the supreme law of the land.” In effect, this clause tells the states that they cannot pass laws or pursue actions that come into conflict with federal actions. It also refers to all state officials pledging their allegiance to the Constitution. The court case McCulloch v Maryland in 1819 established this precedent when Maryland was told it could not tax the National Bank.

The concept of federalism, the overall relationship between the federal government and state governments, is defined in the Tenth Amendment of the Constitution. This amendment specifically tells the states that they have reserved powers: Powers not delegated to the federal government by the Constitution belong to the states.

Advocates of a strong federal system believe state and local governments do not have the sophistication to deal with the major problems facing the country. These advocates often believe local politicians are provincial in their point of view and would favor sectional issues that do not take into account the interests of the entire nation. Those who favor a strong federal system also point to the inability of state and local governments to support the vast programs financially because of an inadequate tax base. They also feel an elitist group would gain control of the smaller governments and ignore the needs of the minority.

Critics of a strong federal system point out that local leaders are most sensitive to the needs of their constituents. They also believe the states can better develop public policy that can be supported by a broad tax base. And critics point to the many demands made upon local governments by the federal government in order to receive financial aid from the federal government.

Through this debate it can be seen how important the relationships among levels of government is. This relationship can affect the kind of political participation that exists. It can determine the kind of public policy that is developed and implemented. Such issues as a national drinking age, a national speed limit, and consistent emission standards in every state have emerged in the debates over which level of government is best suited to solve the problems facing the country. Additionally, after the Republicans won back control of Congress in 1994, the issue of devolution of federal power, returning the balance of federal–state responsibilities back to the states, emerged in the name of unfunded mandates: regulations passed by Congress or issued by regulatory agencies to the states without the federal funds to support them.

Local Governments Also Have a Unique Relationship with the Federal Government

Compared to other means of dividing power, federalism establishes a unique working relationship with the other levels of government and its people. Neither component can abolish or alter the other single-handedly. Conversely, a unitary system of government centralizes all power, whereas a confederation decentralizes all power. Most parliamentary governments such as Great Britain and France are unitary. Power can be taken away from the local unit by the central authority. The former Soviet Union, after its breakup, formed the Russian Confederation. The United States at first had a confederation, the Articles of Confederation, which failed after a few short years in existence. The loosest confederation that exists on the international scene is the United Nations.

The advantage of the federal system over a unitary system and confederations is that a distinct line is drawn between what is in the purview of the central government versus what local governments are concerned with. The central government is concerned with the broader issues affecting the entire country, such as foreign policy, interstate matters, and immigration. Local governments are concerned with matters that have a direct impact on the daily lives of their citizens, such as motor vehicle laws, garbage, education, and public health and welfare. Shared interests involve methods of raising revenue and creating a criminal justice system as well as common spending programs. Public policy is developed by both state and federal legislation. Yet, at times, the distinction between which policies are federal and which should be developed by the states becomes cloudy.

Illustrative Example

The Federal Government’s Response to the Global Pandemic

The world faced a global pandemic in January 2020 after an outbreak of the virus COVID-19 broke out in Wuhan China in December 2019. The first reported case in the United States was in the state of Washington in January 2020. From the onset, President Trump admitted to investigative journalist Bob Woodward, in Woodward’s book Rage, that he wanted to downplay the threat of the virus. As it continued to spread throughout the United States, states had to rely on the federal government for badly needed resources. Hospitals lacking medical supplies and a shortage of equipment made dealing with the pandemic a challenge. President Trump did move to stop most travel into the United States from China and Europe in January and February, but the pandemic could not be stopped. A Coronavirus task force was formed, and a good part of the country was locked down in March in an attempt to control the spread of the virus and relieve the strain felt by hospitals. Testing for the virus by the states was hampered by a lack of support from the federal government. Deaths continued to spiral out of control as safety measures, such as wearing a mask, became politicized. President Trump in October 2021 was stricken with the virus and recovered. DQWE.

The unemployment rate peaked at an unprecedented level that had not been seen since data collection started in 1948. In April 2020, it was at 14.8% before declining to a still elevated level of 6.3% in January 2021. Millions of people faced economic hardship last seen during the Great Depression. Congress and President Trump moved to provide economic relief in the form of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Passed in late March 2020, the spending primarily included $300 billion in one-time cash payments to individual Americans (with most single adults receiving $1,200 and families with children receiving more), $260 billion in increased unemployment benefits, the creation of the Paycheck Protection Program that provided forgivable loans to small businesses with an initial $350 billion in funding (later increased to $669 billion by subsequent legislation), $500 billion in loans for corporations, and $339.8 billion to state and local governments. After most of the benefits expired, Congress passed a second stimulus bill in December 2020 that provided a smaller second check to most Americans and reinstated a reduced unemployment insurance benefits. After President Biden was elected, his first major legislative initiative was a $1.9 trillion dollar relief bill. These measures reflect the manner in which the federal government provided relief for Americans similar to the manner in which Franklin Roosevelt did in his New Deal. In September 2021, deaths passed 650,00 people with over 40 million cases reported.

The other component of the federal government’s response to the pandemic was the development of a vaccine to combat the virus. “Operation Warp Speed” invested billions of dollars in the rapid development of the vaccines which were first approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in November 2020. Again, the states had to rely on the federal government for the supply of the vaccines, which did not begin to ramp up until President Biden took office. By September 2021, The United States had vaccinated more than 75% of the adult population. Because the country endured a summer surge of new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths due to the more contagious Delta-8 variant of COVID-19, President Biden issued several mandates. They included mandating all federal employees to get vaccinated, and all workers in businesses with over 100 employees to get vaccinated or tested. These mandates, as well as many local mask mandates, were challenged by many Republican governors and a large number of Republican voters.