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Federalism – An American Tradition

“It is getting to be harder to run a constitution than to frame one” – Woodrow Wilson, 28th President

When one hears about the bureaucracy conglomerate in the federal government, chances are they are referring to federalism. Federalism is the division of power among state governments and the national government. As the size of the nation swelled, and the national government grew, and the authority of the executive branch expanded, the need for government agencies was called for to administer the objectives of the government. The agencies of a federalist government does performs quite a bit of work that would otherwise be impossible to do. Pause here and try to imagine everything the federal government does through agencies and try to estimate how many federal agencies there are. Got a number in mind? Well that number is probably not right. In fact, “no one can even say with certainty anymore how many federal agencies exist” and they create more laws than Congress! So how did this system start? Like almost everything in American politics, it was conceived through a great debate.

The Great Debate

Federalism was a response to both the British government which ruled with a Unitary system, that is a concentrated central government, and the Articles of Confederation (“The Articles”). A Unitary system and the Articles are complete opposites where the former was an extremely strong central government with weak local and regional agencies, only having powers granted by the central government and the later has strong state governments and a central government with powers only granted by the states.

Federalism was given live through a debate between two teams of Founding Fathers. Those in favor of the strong central government were called “Federalists” and those in favor of a country run by “The Articles” where called “anti-Federalists”. The anti-Federalists opposed the Constitution (incorporating federalism) because they say it as a threat to state sovereignty. But the Articles of Confederation, the nation’s framework before the Constitution drafted during the American Revolution and ratified in 1781, had inherent weaknesses. There were a lot of deficiencies in the Articles which lead to problems in administration: Each state only had one vote, Congress did not have the power to tax, amendments required unanimous vote, and laws required 9/13 majority to pass Congress to name a few. These weaknesses definitely safeguarded against a tyrannical central power, but left the union powerless to administer tax or legislature – a striking similarity to the weaknesses within the European Union today. But perhaps the biggest weakness was national defense. In The Federalist Papers, written by Federalists Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, they argued in favor of the Constitution to unite the Union and protect against foreign aggressors saying:

We have seen the necessity of the Union, as our bulwark against foreign danger, as the conservator of peace among ourselves, as the guardian of our commerce and other common interests, as the only substitute for those military establishments which have subverted the liberties of the Old World, and as the proper antidote for the diseases of faction, which have proved fatal to other popular governments, and of which alarming symptoms have been betrayed by our own. – James Madison in Federalist Paper No. 14.

The debate was finally settled with a compromise to include the Bill of Rights amended with the Constitution namely with the 10th Amendment which states that “powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people”. Needless to say, this debate has shaped the history and the foundation of the United States leading to many state’s rights struggles including nullification, slavery, and other crises.

Effects of Federalism

Pro-federalists hold that it promotes a “sense of community and affinity between citizens and the government” but perhaps the most useful reasoning is the incredible efficiency with which the government can act locally and nationally. Federalism has the capacity of carrying out the uncountable amount of daily objectives of governments on all levels with the goal of an effective government therefore, “federalism should be seen as empowering each level of government to deal with society’s social problems.” Indeed, most of the services provided would not be possible without today’s federalist system.

The scale of the United States economy and vast achievements is not without its downfalls. The reader has thought of  at least a few frustrating inadequacies regarding government agencies and the rigid manner in which they operate. Although able to perform a large number of tasks, agencies sometimes become ineffective and produce sluggish, ineffective actions followed by weak decision making. Democratic candidate, Andrew Yang, actually eloquently and humorously describes this phenomena when describing the administration of a Universal Basic Income, “The government is not capable of a lot of things, but it is capable of sending large numbers of checks to large numbers of people promptly and reliably. We have plenty of resources, they’re just not being distributed to enough people right now.”

Such coordination problems are solved by working with local and state governments in the administration of services. Criminal justice systems and environmental protection agencies are examples where federal, state, and local governments all have a hand in addressing the issues. As one would imagine, this overlapping of responsibility could lead to more inefficiencies in the delegation of duties – the fix is functional integration where functional integration is stressed. This is also known as “picket fence federalism”, where power is distributed between federal, state, and local governments and allow for each level of government to “make up part of each picket”.

Federalism Today

The federalism known today is shaped by President Franklin Roosevelt’s efforts to save the U.S. failing economy during the 1930’s when he created new federal agencies in the New Deal – these agencies became to be known as the Alphabet Soup Agencies. The same worry cropped back up: Congress and citizens were worried about the ever expanding powers of the executive and its agencies have and pushed for the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) of 1946. The APA is seen as one of the most important acts for administrative law and is designed to keep the public informed regarding agencies procedures and rules, keeps agencies open to public involvement, establishes uniform procedures for rulemaking and adjudication, and defines scope for any judicial review. But, perhaps most importantly, provides a safeguard against overwhelming federal power and empowers states and local agencies to work with them in a distribution of power to accomplish shared goals.

The best example would have to be disaster relief. When a hurricane strikes, dozens of federal, state, local, civilian, non-profit, and even foreign assistance sets to work to help rebuild communities. Federal agencies that collaborates is the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) which works, with the permission of the state, to provide relief to state and local governments as well as to citizens. FEMA not only provides monetary relief, such as the $16 million in assistance to families along the East Coast during Tropical Storm Irene, but also transportation, communication, public safety, and other logistic management. But this relief can only work when in coordination with state and local governments in a “picket fence” of services.


Working in any level of government has the potential to collaborate and work with federal agencies making it important to understand the vast web of organizations that make up federalism. With the ever expanding reach of executive power, one must know where they stand in regards to this web that is best described by Max Weber as an “iron cage whose rigidity would easily snuff out human feelings and values.”

Follow Up Question

Are there theoretical underpinnings that suggest the U.S. Government use monies to assist state and local governments? And can you discuss how disasters, natural or man made, build a strong case for intergovernmental financial relations

Since it’s conception, the United States started a slow crawl from the decentralized powers of the Articles of Confederation to Constitutionalism and Federalism. It was just in the past 100 years that this crawl has accelerated and produced a strong federal government to allocate services and funds to state and local governments. The need and the prevalence of federal power over state power is not only in law, but stays alive through the need for federal funds – seen best during economic, natural, and man-made disasters.

Some could argue that the powers were won during the Federalist and anti-Federalist debate in the late 1700’s. Once the Constitution was established and ratified, it was established that the federal government, “shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the Constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding” (Article six). Others may rightly claim that the feds won their power over the states after the Civil War, whose outcome, “profoundly altered the federal government’s relationship to the American economy” and after the 14th amendment, the federal system was completely altered. But it was not until the 20th century did the federal government begin performing the vast amount of services it does, and distributing funds.

More recently, this power of federal power over state, can be seen in the many acts that increase government oversight and regulation. As Holloway notes, the federal government’s authority over the states can be seen in legislative works such as the Clean Water Act and whil “federal preemptions are on the rise, with 800 plus statutory actions between 1960-1995, states remain mostly sovereign and left to their own devices.” This is clearly stated in the Constitution (in Article I, Section 8 and the 10th Amendment) as well that, “no government, no matter what the level, is free to do whatever it pleases”. Indeed, in the Obama-era, we have seen lawmakers challenge the former president at every turn to block what they saw as federal overreach, especially in spending (Notes).

But if the states have a problem with federal spending and funds, why don’t they simply reject their influence? Because most of that influence comes with funding and aid which, “is crucial and necessary factor that can affect the way a local and national government interact with one another” and while there have been attempts to reign in federal aid, the funds largely continued to flow in the form of block grants and emergency funding. It is the emergency funding that is most needed. It is observed that while aid and funds to states have been slowing, aid from emergency agencies, such as FEMA and HUD, “have not really been tampered with”. Shelby Jackson continues with an important point, although aid can be extremely helpful and needed, there is the risk of Devolution where federal funds are tampered or cut off, leaving the states, municipalities, and citizens to fend for themselves. It is this risk of devolution and the seemingly constant flow of national emergencies that keeps the federal government in the interests of the other levels of governments. Although there is bureaucratic frustrations when dealing with emergency agencies, such as with Puerto Rico, the much needed funds help citizens in ways private, nonprofit, or state organizations could never do at such as scale so frequently.


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