Fresno State professor: how the U.S. government got its power

Betty Q. Hixson


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A full House of Representatives on Capitol Hill. The federal government has gained authority over the last decades, says Naomi Bick of Fresno State, as federalism has grown with grants being given to states.

A full House of Representatives on Capitol Hill. The federal government has gained authority over the last decades, says Naomi Bick of Fresno State, as federalism has grown with grants being given to states.

Should the national government or state governments be the ones to handle issues like COVID-19, abortion, and education?

This is a debate that has persisted throughout the history of the United States, and represents an ever-evolving understanding of federalism. For their part, we know U.S. citizens are more likely to report trust in their local government compared with the national government. Gallup polls have shown a consistent citizen preference for state and local governments over the national government. Though overall trust in government has continued to decrease over time, Americans report the highest levels of trust in the most local levels of government.

The following discussion will highlight how power has been shared across different levels of government throughout the history of the United States and where we are now. It briefly reviews points about national and state government authority to handle issues like COVID-19 and the pros and cons of both approaches.

Federalism is best understood as a system of government where power is divided between the national government and other government units (i.e. states, regions, etc). Though the word federalism does not appear in the U.S. Constitution, the founders wanted to expressly delegate certain powers to the three branches of government, while still reserving certain powers to the states. The 10th Amendment to the Constitution expressly reserves to the states those powers not delegated to the federal government.

In the early days of the United States, there was a clear separation between the states and national governments and their respective authorities. This period, lasting until the early 1900s, was characterized by increasing national power as the Marshall Court carved out power for institutions such as the Supreme Court in judicial authority and Congress in commerce and banking. States maintained power in areas such as education, slavery and then segregation, and land management.

Beginning around the time of the Great Depression, we saw a shift in the relationship between the national government and states. The national government became a partner to the state governments and created new mechanisms of federal assistance, such as grants. The powers of both levels of government started to blend while the national government advanced its supremacy in new economic and welfare policies during the New Deal.

This financial relationship and blending of powers eventually led the federal government to become more directive, particularly with grant money and mandating how it should be spent. This shifting relationship led to criticisms of the national government and calls for “states’ rights” and devolution of power back to the states in the 1970s and 1980s.

Many Southern politicians called for state and local authority to counteract the enforcement of desegregation, and argued that they needed the authority and flexibility to enact their constituents’ own wishes. Politicians greatly diminished financial transfers from the national government to the states and localities in this period under the pretense of freedom for states and cities.

With growing complaints about the lack of federal funds available to state and local governments, particularly with what are called “unfunded mandates,” where states are required to implement policies without financial support, transfers through grants once again increased to states and localities from the national level. After 9/11, the federal government worked to increase their power of surveillance and travel laws over state and local authority with the Patriot Act.

In the wake of COVID-19, we’ve seen lawmakers revisit these questions of who has the authority to act in public health situations. While the Commerce Clause in the Constitution and the Public Health Service Act give authority to the national governmentin this area, the 10th Amendment and Supreme Court cases such as Campagnie Francaise de Navigation a Vapeur v. Louisiana State Board of Health give states authority as well.

Proponents of state control argue that more local power leads to solutions tailored to local communities and improved policy making through state diversity and competition for innovations. Proponents of national control argue that more national power leads to equity in solutions and increased savings through the efficiency of using one bureaucracy. We have seen elected officials use these talking points in arguing for control at various levels of government in the past two years of pandemic debates as well as other important policy areas.

Recent experiences with COVID-19 tell us that the story of federalism continues to evolve. Like in the early days of the United States, the powers and boundaries between the states and federal government are still being tested in the courts.

While the court has ruled in favor of the national government in areas such as gay marriage, the Affordable Care Act and Affirmative Action, changes in court majorities mean that issues such as abortion and environmental laws are likely to be revisited, and the relationship between the federal government and states will continue to change.

Dr. Naomi Bick teaches political science at California State University Fresno.

naomi bick.jfif
Naomi Bick, assistant professor of political science, Fresno State.

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