Federalism has evolved over the course of American history. At different points in time, the balance and boundaries between the national and state government have changed substantially. In the twentieth century, the role of the national government expanded dramatically, and it continues to expand in the twenty-first century.
Dual federalism describes the nature of federalism for the first 150 years of the American republic, roughly 1789 through World War II. The Constitution outlined provisions for two types of government in the United States, national and state. For the most part, the national government dealt with national defense, foreign policy, and fostering commerce, whereas the states dealt with local matters, economic regulation, and criminal law. This type of federalism is also called layer-cake federalism because, like a layer cake, the states’ and the national governments each had their own distinct areas of responsibility, and the different levels rarely overlapped.
Part of the disputes that led to the Civil War (1861–1865) concerned federalism. Many Southerners felt that state governments alone had the right to make important decisions, such as whether slavery should be legal. Advocates of states’ rights believed that the individual state governments had power over the federal government because the states had ratified the Constitution to create the federal government in the first place. Most Southern states eventually seceded from the Union because they felt that secession was the only way to protect their rights. But Abraham Lincoln and many Northerners held that the Union could not be dissolved. The Union victory solidified the federal government’s power over the states and ended the debate over states’ rights.
The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified a few years after the Civil War in 1868, includes three key clauses, which limit state power and protect the basic rights of citizens:
The nature of government and politics in the United States changed dramatically in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The national government assumed a larger role as a result of two major events:
Although these events played out over many decades, they reached their high points during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt (1933–1945). The Great Depression, brought about by the crash of the stock market in 1929, was one of the most severe economic downturns in American history. Many businesses failed, roughly one-third of the population was out of work, and poverty was widespread. In response, Roosevelt implemented the New Deal, a series of programs and policies that attempted to revive the economy and prevent further depression. The New Deal included increased regulation of banking and commerce and programs to alleviate poverty, including the formation of the Works Progress Administration and a social security plan. In order to implement these programs, the national government had to grow dramatically, which consequently took power away from the states.
Federalism over much of the last century has more closely resembled a marble cake rather than a layer cake as federal authority and state authority have become intertwined. The national government has become integrated with the state and local governments, making it difficult to tell where one type of government begins and the other types end. State and local governments administer many federal programs, for example, and states depend heavily on federal funds to support their own programs. This type of federalism is called cooperative federalism, or marble-cake federalism.
Since the 1970s, political leaders and scholars of the New Federalism school have argued that the national government has grown too powerful and that power should be given back to the states. Although the national government remains extremely important, state governments have regained some power. Richard Nixon began supporting New Federalism during his presidency (1969–1974), and every president since Nixon has continued to support the return of some powers to state and local governments. Although political leaders disagree on the details, most support the general principle of giving power to the states.
New Federalism has taken concrete form in a variety of policies. New Federalists have argued for specific limits on federal power, as well as devolution, a policy of giving states power and responsibility for some programs. For example, the 1996 welfare reforms gave states the ability to spend federal dollars as they saw fit. Supporters claim that local and state governments can be more effective because they understand the circumstances of the issue in their state. They argue that a one-size-fits-all program imposed by Washington cannot function as effectively.
New Federalism appeals to many people because of its emphasis on local and state governments. Many Americans feel that the national government has become too intrusive and unaccountable. These people champion state and local government as closer to the people and thus more accountable. However, Americans often want a single seat of power for some tasks. Competing local and state governments can cause more problems than they solve, especially during emergencies. For example, the terrible hurricanes of 2005 led residents of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama to demand a better, more unified national response.
The Supreme Court has played a New Federalist role by siding with state governments in a number of cases. Perhaps the most well known of these cases is United States v. Lopez (1995), in which the Court ruled that Congress had overstepped its authority in creating gun-free school zones. More controversially, in 2000, the Court struck down parts of the Violence Against Women Act (1994) for much the same reason in United States v. Morrison. In other cases, the court has ruled that state governments cannot be sued for violating rights established by federal law. Overall, the Supreme Court in the 1990s reduced the power of the federal government in important ways, particularly in relation to the commerce clause.