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Chapter 3. Federalism. Three Systems of Government. Unitary System – strong central government; local governments only have powers given them by central government; power flows down from center to units; the most common form

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Chapter 3


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Three Systems of Government

  • Unitary System – strong central government; local governments only have powers given them by central government; power flows down from center to units; the most common form

    • Examples: Great Britain, Sweden, Japan, Egypt, Israel, the Philippines

  • Confederal System – strong state governments; central government has only limited powers over the states; a league of independent states, each having essentially sovereign power; power flows up from the units to the center; uncommon

    • Examples: US under Articles of Confederation (1776-1788), European Union

  • Federal System – power is divided between central government and states; each has its own sphere of influence; power flows both ways from central government to units and vice versa; less common

    • Examples: U.S., Australia, Brazil, Canada, Germany, India

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Why Federalism?

  • Practical Solution – compromise that helped ensure ratification of the Constitution (Federalists vs. Anti-Federalists); helped resolve dispute between advocates of a strong central government and a weak central government, states’ rights advocates

  • Geography and population make it impractical to locate all political authority in one place; practical for large countries

  • Brings government closer to the people

  • State governments train future national leaders

  • State governments can be testing grounds for policy initiatives

  • Federalism allows for many political subcultures

  • Provides regionally concentrated groups a degree of autonomy

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Why Not Federalism?

  • Potential lack of coherence

  • States can block national plans

  • Inequalities across states in terms of education, crime control, building safety, etc.

  • More broadly, federal units can become the basis for secessionist movements (esp. regionally concentrated ethnonationalist movements)

    • Examples: the Confederacy in the U.S.; Kurds in Iraq; Quebequois (French Candadians from Quebec) in Canada

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National Government Powers

  • Expressed powers are those enumerated in the Constitution (Article I, Section 8), pp. 376-377

    • Examples: lay and collect taxes, borrow, regulate commerce, coin money, set standards of weights and measures, declare war

  • Implied powers arethose reasonably (inferred but not expressly stated) necessary to carry out the powers expressly delegated

    • Based in Article I, Section 8, Clause 18: “Necessary and Proper Clause,” a.k.a. “Elastic Clause,” 377

  • Inherent Powers are held by the national government by virtue of it being a sovereign state recognized by the community of nations; grounded in international law

    • Right to survival, defense, national interest, trade, make treaties, territorial integrity, self-determination, freedom from external intervention, just war, acquire territory

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State Government Powers

  • Reserved powers outlined in the Tenth Amendment, 385

    • “The powers not delegated to the U.S. by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

    • Regulation of intrastate commerce; state militia; police power (crime, contracts, marriage/divorce; education, traffic, land use, etc.); levy taxes

    • Police power = authority to make laws for the protection of the health, morals, safety, and welfare of the people

  • Denied powers (Article I, Section 10, 378) = treaties and coinage; duties and imposts; war

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Federal/State Government Powers

  • Concurrent powers = held jointly by national and state governments (tax, borrow money, make and enforce laws, establish courts, etc.)

  • Prohibited powers = national government prohibited from taxing exports; states prohibited from entering into treaties on its own with another country

  • Supremacy clause (Article VI, clause 2, 382) = Constitution and federal laws superior to all conflicting state and local laws; federal law takes precedence over all state law; Constitution, congressional laws, national treaties, and rules/regulations issued by the executive are “Supreme Law of the Land”; states cannot use reserved or concurrent powers to thwart national policies

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Vertical Checks and Balances

  • Separation of powers/checks and balances at national level aimed at preventing national government from becoming too powerful

  • Federalism allows for “vertical” checks and balances between states and the national government

  • States’ checks = reserved powers; representation in Congress; vote for president; amendment process; administration of national programs

  • National government’s checks = expressed and implied powers; Supremacy clause; commerce clause; federal grants

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Constitutional Clauses Concerning Interstate Relations

  • A.k.a. “horizontal federalism”

  • Full Faith and Credit clause (Article IV, 381) = all states are required to respect one another’s laws

  • Privileges and Immunities Clause = a citizen of a state has all the rights as the citizen of another state where they happen to be

  • Extradition clause = a person accused of a crime who flees to another state must be returned if requested

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Expanding the Powers of the National Government

  • Landmark Supreme Court cases under Chief Justice John Marshall increased the power of the national government relative to the states

  • McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) – enhanced the implied powers of the national government through an expansive interpretation of the necessary and proper clause (Article I, Section 8, Clause 18)

  • Gibbons v. Ogden (1824) – broad interpretation of the commerce clause (Article I, Section 8, Clause 3) expanded the regulatory powers of the federal government; regulation of interstate commerce an exclusive national power

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Reassertion of States’ Rights and Civil War

  • Civil War – ultimate dispute over power of national and state governments; national government supremacy and rights of states

  • Nullification– idea that states could declare a national law null and void

  • Secession– withdrawal of a state from a union

  • Civil War ends idea that a state can secede and leads to an increase in the power of the national government

  • Prior to Civil War, many states considered themselves ultimate authority; after War, supremacy of national government recognized (at least by most)

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War and Growth of National Government

  • Defeat of the South ended idea that states could secede from the Union

  • Also resulted in expansion of the powers of the national government (the opposite of what the South was fighting for)

    • New governments employees hired to conduct the war effort, and Reconstruction

    • Billion dollar budget passed

    • Temporary income tax imposed on citizens

    • Civil liberties curtailed because of war effort

    • National government provided pensions to veterans and widows

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Continuing Dispute over the Division of Power

  • Post-Civil War –two major phases in Federal-State government relations

  • Dual Federalism – national and state governments equal sovereign powers within their own spheres (e.g., states control intrastate commerce; federal government interstate commerce)

  • Cooperative Federalism (post-depression era) – states and national government cooperate to solve common problems

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Federal Aid to States

  • As transportation improved and trade expanded, national government began to regulate national economy and construct infrastructure. One method of achieving this was federal grants with “strings”

  • Categorical grants-in-aid = federal grants targeted for specific programs/projects (Medicaid, highway construction, unemployment, housing, welfare); enables Congress to effect policy change in states

  • Block grants = federal grants provided for general functional areas (criminal justice, mental health); preferred by states because it gives them greater flexibility in spending

  • Federal mandates = rules/regulations handed down by the federal government (environmental protection, civil rights), often unfunded and expensive, that force states and municipalities to comply with certain rules

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© 2004 Wadsworth Publishing / Thomson Learning™

Shift towards Central Government spending

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Supreme Court and Federalism

  • Plays a key role in determining the line between state and federal powers

  • Over the last decade, the conservative Rehnquist court has lessened the federal government’s powers under the commerce clause

  • Increasingly emphasized state powers granted by the 10th and 11th Amendments

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Federalism, Supreme Court, and Commerce Clause

  • United States v. Lopez – court rules Congress exceeded its authority under the commerce clause in passing the Gun-Free School Zone Act of 1990

  • United States v. Morrison – court rules Congress exceeded its authority under the commerce clause in passing the Violence Against Women Act of 1994

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Federalism, Supreme Court and Eleventh Amendment

  • Decisions bolstered the authority of state governments:

    • Alden v. Maine (1999) – state employees can’t sue state for violating federal overtime pay law

    • Kimel v. Florida Board of Regents (2000) – state university employees can’t sue state for violating federal age discrimination law

    • Yet, in Nevada v. Holmes (2003) – the court ruled that state employers must abide by the federal Family Medical Leave Act, which seeks to outlaw gender bias

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State Governments Today

  • Provide highly visible functions (e.g., education, health, police, fire, roads, welfare, etc.); funded by sales taxes and income taxes

    • Local government services funded by property taxes

  • Mirrored on national government

    • Most executives have line item veto power (unlike President)

    • Legislatures often criticized as unprofessional, uneffective; limited resources; limited meeting times; low pay; responsible for drawing electoral district lines

    • Each maintains a court system

  • Crises in state finances vitally important (as we know all too well in CA)

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Why Federalism is Important Today

  • No uniform body of national laws (unlike under Unitary governments)

  • Differences in criminal sanctions and sentencing from state to state; county to county

  • Differences in welfare and education spending

  • Allows for diversity and inequalities

  • Gives citizens the option to “vote with their feet” and go to a state conducive to their interests

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Discussion Questions

  • Is there a proper balance between states’ rights and the powers of the federal government?

  • Would we be better off with increased federal powers?

  • Has federalism “worked” for the U.S.?

  • Do you think unfunded federal mandates are fair?

  • What would happen if a state like California tried to secede from the U.S. and form an independent country?

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Hot Links to Selected Internet Resources:

  • Book’s Companion Site:

  • Wadsworth’s Political Science Site:

  • Emory University’s Federal Law Site:

  • Unity and Federalism:

  • Project Vote Smart: