Guide: Federalism in the United States
Updated: Dec 21, 2021
The federal system of government in the United States is very different to the UK’s more centralised approach. With the vast size and geographical diversity of the US, you can understand why a different system is needed.
This guide will give an overview of how US federalism works and look at the benefits and problems of the federal system.
So, what is federalism?
Federalism is a system of government where power is divided between the national government and regional governments, creating two levels of administration. In the US, this is seen with the division of powers between the national ‘federal’ government and the 50 states which make up the country.
The federal government is responsible for the entire country and is home to the president and Congress; state governments are concerned specifically with their own jurisdiction and include state officials such as governors and state legislatures (smaller state-focused versions of Congress).
History of federalism in the US
After the US secured its independence, the Founding Fathers wanted a system of government which would protect the country from an all-powerful national government. This system was set out in a document called the Articles of Confederation which gave huge amounts of power to each of the states, but very little to the national government.
However, the Articles of Confederation caused many problems, such as economic disorganisation, because the weak national government had no power to tax and each state had its own separate currency.
This system was ultimately scrapped and replaced by the US Constitution in 1789. America’s federal system of government today is a compromise between the system set out in the Articles of Confederation and a more centralised system.
How are powers divided?
As both the federal government and individual states hold power, they are responsible for different policy areas which are split between exclusive powers and shared powers. Exclusive powers are given either to the state or national government; shared powers are given to them equally.
Congress, which is part of the federal government, also has the power to make and pass laws in other areas which will help them to use their powers – known as the ‘necessary and proper’ clause. What is classed as ‘necessary’ for the national government to use their powers has a very wide scope, and so Congress has passed several different laws using this power. Alexander Hamilton used this clause to create a national bank, believing it necessary for allowing the government to regulate trade.
Relationship between national and state governments
Since both the national government and states have the power to make and pass laws, there exists two types of law in the US: national law and state law.
Although states have considerable autonomy, the supremacy clause states that national laws supersede state laws. So if state laws conflict with laws passed by the national government, national law comes out on top, and the state law must be removed or amended. If a state refuses to remove or amend a law, the national government may need to intervene.
The national government has a couple of ways to enforce its laws on states. For example, President Lyndon B. Johnson sent the national guard to rebellious southern states to enforce new national laws outlawing segregation. President Reagan encouraged states to pass his National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which increased the minimum age to buy alcohol to 21, by threatening to withhold some government funding if they failed to implement it.
How does federalism impact US politics today?
Recent developments in American politics demonstrate the federal system at work. As the national government has allowed the states to make their own laws concerning drugs, several states have opted to decriminalise the use of marijuana. In 2020, Oregon voters even backed proposals to decriminalise the possession of all drugs.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, states have largely been responsible for introducing and enforcing their own restrictions. For the vaccine programme, the federal government is responsible for buying and distributing vaccines to state governments, but the states manage the rollout to their citizens. As the US picks up speed with its vaccine rollout, certain states are vaccinating much faster than others. States are even responsible for setting up vaccination booking systems – however, the lack of a centralised national booking system has created some confusion.
Is federalism a positive feature of US politics?
Supporters argue that federalism:
👍 Allows for regional and demographic differences
The United States is a large, diverse country and so its people have differing needs. States are better placed to understand and provide for the needs of their citizens, rather than the national government rolling out blanket policies.
👍 Provides a laboratory for democracy
New policy ideas can be tested in a few states before being rolled out nationally. For example, the benefits and problems of drug decriminalisation in Oregon can be evaluated before deciding whether to apply it elsewhere.
Opponents, however, argue that federalism:
👎 Generates a patchwork of laws
State laws can vary from state to state with little uniformity, which can be confusing. In New Jersey, it is against the law to fill up your own car at a petrol station, but just across the border in Pennsylvania it is perfectly legal.
👎 Creates regional inequalities
States are responsible for delivering healthcare, welfare and education provisions, the quality of which can vary from state to state. This means that access to important public services depends on the state in which citizens live.
👎 Leads to a lack of accountability
It can be difficult to figure out who is to blame for policy failures. Should we blame the national government or individual states for America’s poor response to the COVID-19 pandemic?
It is important to remember that the US has a huge population, with some states larger than the UK. Relying on national government to provide for citizens may work in smaller countries but would be wildly inefficient for the US. Allowing the states some autonomy means that they can provide what their citizens need without waiting for the national government to act.
Since America adopted a federal system of government, a number of other countries have been inspired to use similar systems. Federal systems of government are also used in Brazil, India, Canada and Australia – it seems that other large countries also favour this system of government.
For more resources and guides on this topic, head to our dedicated US Politics section.
Edited by Alex Leggett