The U.S. federal system assigns decision-making authority to both national and state governments and protects each level from encroachments by the other. The Framers structured the Constitution to carefully define and limit the powers of the national government. The Framers’ attempts to create mutually exclusive spheres of influence, however, quickly gave way to a system of shared federalism, where national and state governments jointly supply services to citizens.
Over time, the powers of the national government have increased relative to those of the states. The nationalization of public policies formerly under the jurisdiction of state governments has been facilitated by the Constitution’s vague language. The supremacy, commerce, and necessary and proper clauses have all provided legal cover to efforts to expand national power.
Several additional factors help account for nationalization. First, nationalization enabled states to solve enduring collective action problems. It allowed states to coordinate on policy solutions, prevent reneging and shirking, and avoid cutthroat competition. Second, the national government has provided a more efficient venue for political actors pursuing causes that enjoy widespread support. Finally, nationalization was furthered by historic shifts of authority to Washington during the 1930s and 1960s, when national officials assumed responsibility for crafting responses to economic and social problems that were beyond the capacity of state governments.
Today, the national government enjoys substantial advantages in structuring its relations with state governments. Through a combination of carrots and sticks, national officials are able to dictate policy in the states when they feel so inclined. The recent growth in the size of state and local governments has occurred not in spite of, but as a result of nationalization, as much of federal domestic policy is implemented through the states rather than the federal bureaucracy.
- What are the main differences between unitary, confederal, and federal governments? Which type of government is most common?
- Most of the Framers felt that the Constitution adequately protected the states against encroachment by the national government. If this was the case, how did proponents of nationalization succeed in expanding the power of the national government?
- When states encounter problems that cross state borders, why don't they just make formal agreements with each other to solve the problems? What happens in the absence of such arrangements?
- Why would national majorities sometimes find it easier to work through the national government than through state governments? What are some examples of policy areas in which this strategy has been used?
- What factors facilitated the expansion of national powers in the New Deal and Great Society programs?
- What are the three main types of collective action problems faced by state governments? Give an example of each.
- What sorts of groups find it more efficient to lobby for policy changes at the national level? What sorts of groups might prefer to do it at the state level?
- How did the Supreme Court’s decisions in McCulloch v. Maryland and Gibbons v. Ogden help pave the way for the expansionist role of the national government over a century later?
- What are unfunded mandates? What four general forms can these mandates take? Why does the federal government increasingly rely on these mandates?