The evolution of federalism

The Evolution of Federalism

The Supreme Court has played a crucial role in sanctioning the expansion of the federal government's power, albeit at times reluctantly. A significant decision came as early as 1819 in McCulloch v Maryland, when the court ruled that the 'necessary and proper' clause (although it was not referred to as such) implied the granting to Congress of such powers as were necessary to implement the powers that were explicitly granted. In the particular case, the constitution did not give Congress the power to establish a bank, but the court decided that a bank is an appropriate means of facilitating Congress's power of taxation and spending and, further, that the 'supremacy clause' of Article 6 means that no state has the right to interfere with its operation.

In the twentieth century, the court initially resisted the expansion of congressional power through the New Deal and, in a series of cases, struck down programmes such as the Agriculture Adjustment Act in United States v Butler (1936). However, it eventually gave way in a further series of cases, beginning with West Coast Hotel v Parrish, decided in 1937. Having conceded the right of Congress to manage the national economy and to impose such measures as it saw fit on the states, the court then took the lead itself after the Second World War in limiting the right of the states to regulate the civil liberties of their own citizens, most famously in Brown v Board of Education of Topeka (1954).

The New Deal programmes of the 1930s, and the 'war on poverty' and the Great Society programme of the mid-1960s, saw a further expansion of the reach of the federal government. By the 1960s, its role had come to be seen in a positive light; in the minds of many, the state governments had become associated, principally through their attempted frustration of moves to end segregation, with backwardness and repression, and the federal government now represented a positive force, ensuring all citizens had acceptable standards of basic rights and services.

However, this perception quickly changed. From the late 1960s onwards many, especially on the right, came to believe that the expansion of the federal role had gone too far. It had shown itself unable to deal with, or was even part responsible for, the social problems of the late 1960s. Increasing drug use and crime, changing sexual morals, and often violent student and racial unrest, meant for many Americans that society seemed on the point of collapse. 'States' rights' became a conservative cause; the federal government had become too powerful and intrusive, presided over by an out-of-touch and profligate Congress, its programmes implemented by an unwieldy and inefficient bureaucracy, imposing its liberal agenda on the rest of the nation. Suspicion of the malign intent of the federal government became ubiquitous in popular culture, and was still evident in later decades in television programmes such as the X Files. It manifested itself much more seriously in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 by Timothy McVeigh and his associates, which left 168 people dead. McVeigh was motivated by hatred of the federal government, particularly its role in the ending of the Waco siege in 1993

Phases of federalism

These changes in the federal-state relationship are distinguished by different phases through which this relationship has passed: dual federalism, cooperative federalism and new federalism.

'Dual federalism' is the term associated with approximately the first 150 years of the nation's history — from the 1780s to the 1920s. During this era, the state governments exercised most political power. The role of the federal government was limited mainly to matters concerning money, war and peace. In President Washington's day, there were only three federal executive departments — the Department of the Treasury, the Department of War and the Department of State. The relatively minor role played by the federal government can best be seen by listing some of the little-known presi­dents of this era: James Polk, Millard Fillmore, Ulysses Grant and Chester Arthur. The federal and state governments each guarded their own powers jealously. Morton Grodzins (1966) called this 'layer-cake' -federalism, in which the federal and state governments had distinct areas of responsibility.

The effects of the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression changed all that. The term 'cooperative federalism' is used to refer to an era, from the 1930s to the 1960s, in which the federal and state governments cooperated to solve the problems facing US society — such as those relating to poverty, health, education, transport and national security. This era coincides with the administrations of four Democrat presidents — Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. It was during this era that the role of the federal government increased significantly. New federal executive departments were created to cope with new policy areas: Defense (1949); Health, Education and Welfare (1953); Housing and Urban Development (1965); and Transportation (1966). The federal government administered categorical grants — schemes by which it was able to stipulate how federal tax dollars were used by the states. By the Clinton era, the federal government was giving over $200 billion to the states, over 90% of which went in the form of categorical grants. So by now the federal government was involved in a number of policy areas where previously only the state governments had operated — such as education, transport and welfare. The two levels of Grodzins' cake had become mixed in what he would now describe as 'marble-cake' federalism.

During the final three decades of the twentieth century, however, there was a discernible movement towards decentralisation — what President Nixon called 'new federalism'. This era saw the rise of block grants — money given to states by the federal government to be used at their discretion within broad policy areas. This change in the federal-state relationship coincides with the administrations of four Republican presidents: Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George Bush. Ronald Reagan, speaking in his first Inaugural Address in January 1981, had this to say:

It is my intention to curb the size and influence of the Federal establishment and to demand recognition of the distinction between the powers granted to the Federal Government and those reserved to the States or to the people. All of us need to be reminded that the Federal Government did not create the States; the States created the Federal Government.

Even Democrat President Bill Clinton recognised that Americans' view of the federal-state relationship had changed, when he stated in his 1996 State of the Union Address: 'The era of big government is over.'

New Federalism Explained

There are a number of reasons for the shift back towards state government power.

  • - First, a perception had grown that the great federal government programmes of FDR's 'New Deal' or Johnson's 'Great Society' had not been as successful as first thought. Too much money had been wasted on bureaucracy

  • Second, there was a belief that the federal government had simply failed to tackle some pressing social problems, such as gun crime, drugs, abortion, welfare and poverty. As a result, scepticism about the federal government's effectiveness had developed.

  • - Third, there was a growing distrust of 'Washington politicians'. The Watergate affair and the debacle in Vietnam both lowered trust in the federal government. Between 1976 and 2000, America elected five presidents — four were former state governors, while only one, George Bush (1988), was a Washington politician. The unsuccessful movement to impose term limits on members of Congress, which became very vocal in the early 1990s, was a manifestation of this distrust of Washington politics.

  • - Fourth, decisions by the mainly Republican-appointed Supreme Court began to limit the scope of federal government power. New federalism' was strongly associated with the Republican Party.

  • Finally, the frequent election of Republican presidents during this era, the election of a Republican-controlled Congress in 1994 and the election of Republican state governors allowed the party to put its policies into effect.