"E Pluribus Unum ("Out of Many, One")"
—Ex-Official motto of the United States (found on the Great Seal of the United States and U.S. currency)
"The Democrats believe the Federal Government should be in charge, and the Republicans believe the States should be in charge, and
wrong. It has to be the way the founding fathers thought of it: as a combination of Federal and State. And the reason they thought of it that way; that we'd be assured that if it was Federal and State, there'd be enough people in the room maybe a few of them could
Federalism is the system in which the power to govern is shared between the different levels of government. Basically, there are at least two different levels of government in an established territory, and these different levels govern through power granted to them in a constitution. The central government is the highest of these levels and, despite the many different forms of federal governments worldwide, they're almost always responsible for two things; national security and diplomacy.
Okay, now how does it apply to the USA?
Glad you asked.
Even before the Revolutionary War
was over, the Thirteen Colonies realized they needed some form of national government to replace the British that they were throwing out. So, the first thing they did was each colony decided to call themselves a state (or commonwealth, which is pretty much the same thing), and then agree to form a national government that would look after the stuff like foreign policy and national defense. In 1781, they created the Articles of Confederation to create such a government.
However, the last thing anyone wanted at this point was a powerful
national government; that was seen as a stepping stone to another British-style tyranny. So the writers of the Articles deliberately made the national government weak and protected the states. This was nearly the nation's undoing. The government could not collect taxes, which meant that it had to raise money by asking the states politely; consequently it had barely enough money to perform the basic functions of government (and sometimes not even that). It also couldn't coerce states or regulate commerce, which often led to conflict between the states putting up tariffs between each other, resulting in hardship in all states. (Most scholars say this more than anything else made it necessary, a good portion of the Constitution is written to make interstate tariffs impossible.) The final straw for the Articles of Confederation was Shays' Rebellion in western Massachusetts in 1786-87, which had to be put down by state
militia due to the ineffectual response by the national government.
So they got back together and wrote up the Constitution of the United States, which was ratified in 1789. Since no one, in the words of Gandalf
, likes to share power, the Constitution sets up a generally "federal" form of government. This means that the states have power over stuff in their state and the national government has power only over national issues, like trade between states, national defense, foreign policy, and so on.
It should be noted that prior to the Federalist Papers (check them out on The Other Wiki
if you feel like doing research; otherwise, know that some people didn't want the Constitution to be ratified so guys like James Madison who helped to create it wrote letters to the editor to convince them that it was a good thing), the term "federal" was more closely associated with federations (as in the
) than republics. This means that proponents of the Constitution gave themselves an inaccurate name because it sounded positive instead of negative (i.e., the original false advertisement in the United States).
(Because the USA has a federal system of government, the term "federal government" has come to mean the national government, which is a rather inaccurate name, but it is very important to realize that 99% of the time, when someone says "federal" they mean "national". Just go with the flow and assume that "federal" means "national" unless said otherwise.)
What does this mean?
Again, glad you asked. In any republic, the power comes from the people, at least in theory. But in a federation, this power is granted directly by the people to both the central government and the lower levels (i.e. states); and in a confederation, this power goes to the lower levels or states which then grant some of it to the central government. (A grant of power direct to the central government which then delegates it to the lower levels is characteristic of unitary or devolved states like France and Italy.) After the Constitution was ratified and up until the Civil War
, it was fairly unclear what the American government actually was. For the first 80 years or so, this worked out fine: the states allowed the federal government to do its thing, but made sure that everyone knew they held the real power. But because the Constitution left it mightily unclear exactly
how much power the states still had, people (especially in the South and New England) tended to associate with their state first and nation second, and the central government and state governments bumped up against each other frequently. Then there was a disagreement over whether new states added in the West should be free or slave states. First was the Missouri Compromise, which banned slavery above 36'30" (commonly and wrongly referred to as the Mason-Dixon Line, which is actually the border between Pennsylvania and Maryland). Then there was the Wilmot Proviso, which tried to ban slavery in any territories acquired from Mexico (and died in Congress). And then came the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed territories to vote on the matter, and led to shooting wars in Kansas. After that, the Dred-Scott decision made territorial bans on slavery unenforceable, and the Republicans won the elections in 1860 on a platform of banning slavery in the territories on a federal level. Some of the southern states decided that this was a breach of agreement between state and national government, because the federal government should (in theory) only have the power that they gave it, and they sure as heck hadn't given Uncle Sam that
. The South, thus feeling put-upon, said, "Screw you, we make our own rules". The result was the American Civil War
, in which it was proved that the federal government had the military might to make anyone do what they wanted
— including individual states, which, up until then, had held the real power. The important, relevant things to remember here are a) the federal government gained power and defined itself as NOT a confederacy, and b) prior to the Civil War, it was the United States plural; after, it was a singular noun.
What does this mean today?
Well, the Constitution lays out how the laws and power are divided between the states and the federal government. However, the United States Supreme Court
told the rest of the nation that it would handle deciding exactly what the Constitution means and exactly what power the states and what power the federal government really has (Marbury v. Madison
, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137 (1803), if you care). So, if the federal government decides to pass a law, or do some action, and the states don't like it, everyone goes to the Supreme Court and it decides who wins.
Officially, the Constitution says the federal government has jurisdiction
over commerce between states (the Commerce Clause), commerce between states and foreign lands, foreign policy, the national military, making paper money and coins, and stuff like that.
As of the 21st century, the federal government has jurisdiction over anything it wants. How do they legitimize this?
- The first way is by Spending Power: the carrot of federal funding and the stick of withholding it. In other words, the feds can't make a state do what they want; that's beyond the scope of their power. But any state that does do what the feds want get a couple billion dollars. Any and all states are of course free to go their own way, and the federal government is certain that said state's citizens won't mind getting their taxes raised to 90% to make up for funds that state is no longer receiving from Washington, D.C. For instance, the age limit on alcohol (21+ years) was pushed on to the states by withholding 5% of highway infrastructure funding from states that wouldn't.
- The second is by the Commerce Clause. The Commerce Clause in the Constitution, which officially lets Congress regulate interstate commerce only, has been interpreted by the courts so that just about anything is interstate commerce. This dates back to at least the court decision Wickard v. Filburn in 1942, which ruled that a farmer growing wheat solely for his own consumption is affecting interstate commerce and subject to Federal regulation. The use of this is particularly controversial even today; the most recent high-profile case Gonzales v. Raich in 2005 ruled that personal use and cultivation of controlled substances such as cannabis likewise can be subject to Federal regulation, even if it was not going to cross state lines.
- There are some limits on both of these decisions, but they are vague and usually can be gotten around with clever drafting showing the bill to be part of the proper use of the Commerce clause. Wickard, for instance, was a Dairy farmer who grew 25 tons of wheat rather than pay the controlled price of wheat for his dairy farm, which was also regulated by federal law. Gonzales, on the other hand, was considered to be affecting what was necessary to be able to actually enforce their proper commerce power of regulation of drugs. However, some people feel the logic gets very tortured quickly and grants the Federal Government a general police power, which it is explicitly not given. A prime example of the "tortured logic" is poor Chief Justice Rehnquist's decision in United States v. Lopez, wherein Rehnquist goes over the past 60 years of Commerce Clause rulings, trying to incorporate them into a coherent whole. He came up with the somewhat questionable but heroic ruling that all the subjects of the Commerce Clause had, hitherto, dealt with "economic matters," and that since gun control in school zones was not inherently related to economic matters, and so was banned. Congress quickly decided to limit the Gun-Free School Zones act to guns that had arrived via interstate commerce — which is virtually all guns, since most guns are produced outside of the state in which they are purchased, and even if they are purchased in the state of manufacture, most are also made out of materials that had crossed state lines.
- If you want a simple version, however, you can understand the Commerce Clause as this: the Commerce Clause is an old-fashioned way of saying "Congress shall have the power to regulate the national economy." The arguments are about what the "national economy" is and what it means to "regulate" it.
- The third is through the Necessary and Proper Clause in the Constitution, which is also called the "elastic clause". This clause says that Congress can make any law that will help it do its job better, i.e., what is necessary and proper. This clause has to be paired with another clause to back it up, because otherwise it would basically be a carte blanche for Congress. Many of the big important laws passed (the Civil Rights Act of 1964, for example) were justified through the Necessary and Proper Clause paired with the Interstate Commerce Clause.note
- The fourth, often used in conjunction with the elastic clause, is the Preamble. "... in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity..." are some pretty broad statements that can be used to justify a lot.
However, the Bill of Rights, on paper, prevents the government from overstepping too much or too often. All of what was just discussed, though most of the examples are about commerce, can pertain to any given situation in which Congress uses its loopholes to pass legislation that would otherwise be unconstitutional. This can be good in some cases (the Civil Rights Movement
) and bad in others (Senator Joseph McCarthy's communist witch hunt
The flip argument to greater decentralization is that claiming states' rights has been used in the past to justify wrongdoing such as slavery and racial segregation and whether the feds have the right to demand that states not let these things go on within their borders. This is also currently relevant to the gay rights movement, with some arguing that individual states should choose for themselves whether to allow same-sex marriages or civil unions and others arguing that gay marriage should be either banned or legalized nationwide.
Still, most police and laws are based on the state level, and most criminals are handled by state courts. The federal government just steps in at various points, handling stuff with a national interest, while not bothering with petty crime. An interesting exception, and one that illustrates the dynamics of federalism, was Project Exile, which used federal authority over crime involving guns as a deterrent - in Project Exile communities, the Feds would actively prosecute any gun crimes rather than the state, which would put the convict into the federal prison system, allowing the government to send them across the country from their home community - hence the name.
A major problem with all this is that to the average citizen, America isn't one nation, but 51 (50 states and D.C., plus territories). Because crossing a state line almost is like entering another country. Each state's laws are different. This is most easily seen with gun laws
, but it affects far more than that. For example, despite the "Americans are all Cowboys/Gun Nuts" stereotype, traffic laws
are more likely to get the average US citizen in trouble... can I make a right turn on a red light or not?note
Are U-turns permitted at all
, and if so under what circumstances? If the speed limit on a surface street isn't explicitly posted, what is
the speed limit?
Some states attempt to mitigate this by creating "uniform acts
", areas of the law that the states agree will be the same in each state. The most influential of them tend to be business related, since money talks and companies want to do business in every state they can profitably. The Uniform Commercial Code
is the longest and most elaborate of the uniform acts. A state may adopt a uniform act as written, or a state may adopt it with specific changes. States can also choose not to adopt them at all.
Crossing a state line also means that in addition to the laws of each state you were in, the national government puts more restrictions on what you can do, because they can now regulate your actions as "interstate".
All in all, between the national, state, county (in most places), city (in some places) and village laws, you can't turn around without having to obey thousands of laws, rules, and regulations by several different layers of government, each layer requiring more officials and bureaucracy and money (taxes) to create, administer, govern, and elect (or appoint) people to do so.
It can be argued, though, that the layers of government were originally put in place to benefit and protect the people; and that, given the actual definition of the word "state" (an independent political entity that answers to no higher authority) and the efforts of the framers of the Constitution put into preserving at least some of this definition, it is Congress' duty to preserve the "tiers".
...BUT the one thing that cannot be disputed is that there is no easy answer and that any author is sure to have fun with all the emotion tied up in politics.