Federalism is a system of government in which a written constitution divides power between a central government and regional or sub-divisional governments. Both types of government act directly upon the people through their officials and laws.
Both types of government are supreme within their proper sphere of authority. Both have to consent (agree) to any changes to the constitution.
In America the term "federal government" is usually understood to refer exclusively to the national government based in Washington. This, however, is not an accurate interpretation of the term as it excludes the role played by other aspects of government concerned with the federalist structure.
Federalism can be seen a compromise between the extreme concentration of power and a loose confederation of independent states for governing a variety of people usually in a large expanse of territory. Federalism has the virtue of retaining local pride, traditions and power, while allowing a central government that can handle common problems. The basic principle of American federalism is fixed in the Tenth Amendment (ratified in 1791) to the Constitution which states:
|"The 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." |
America has throughout its history seen federalism defined in a variety of patterns.
Co-operative federalism: this assumes that the two levels of government are essentially partners. Dual federalism: this assumes that the two levels are functioning separately. Creative federalism: this involves common planning and decision making Horizontal federalism: this involves interactions and common programmers among the 50 states. Marble-cake federalism: this is characterized by an intermingling of all levels of government in policies and programming. Picket-fence federalism: this implies that bureaucrats and clientele groups determine intergovernmental programmers. Vertical federalism: this is viewed as the traditional form of federalism as it sees the actions of the national government as supreme within their constitutional sphere.
In America each state has its own position of legal autonomy and political significance. Though a state is not a sovereign body, it does exercise power and can carry out functions that would be carried out by the central authority in other governmental set-ups.
The Constitution set up a division of power between the federal and state governments which initially limited the federal unit to the fields of defense, foreign affairs, the control of the currency and the control of commerce between the states.
This division of power has been eroded over the years so that today the federal government has functions that have been greatly extended and touch on nearly all aspects of life for American citizens.
Regardless of this expansion of federal power, the states continue to be very important political centers of government activity. Recent presidents such as Nixon and Reagan tried to cut back the power of the federal government and give back to the states power that was deemed to have been taken from them. The current president, George W Bush, has promised to continue with what might be deemed a Republican principle - making Federal government smaller.