The American Federal System

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The American Federal System

The 2000 presidential contest was one of the most closely divided elections in American history. It took a month before Americans were sure that Republican George W. Bush had won the Presidency. In the meantime, the world watched as the fight for votes in Florida repeatedly bounced from state to federal courts and back again. A U.S. Supreme Court decision finally settled the matter. What many foreign observers found puzzling was how voting standards could vary so much from place to place or how local officials could play such an important role in a national election.
Americans also may have been surprised by the differences in voting procedures from state to state, but it should not have come as such a shock. Although few people recognized it at the time, the drama of the 2000 presidential election was acted out on a stage created in the U.S. Constitution over 200 years ago. As colonists, the Founding Fathers had become angry under the authority of the distant British government. They had come to view centralized power as a threat to their rights and liberties.
As a result, the major problem facing the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 was how to restrict the power of the central government, while still providing it with enough power to govern a large nation. Dividing power between two levels of government -- national and state -- was one of the solutions to this problem. This system of divided power, known as federalism or the federal system, is part of the genius of the American constitution.
Defining federalism
Federalism is a system of shared power between the state governments and the national government. Most governments around the world have only one source of power, the central or national government. The differences between the two types of governments are important. In Great Britain, for example, Parliament has ultimate authority over everything that occurs within the country.
In the United States, the situation is different. Laws of the national government, located in Washington, D.C., apply to all Americans, while laws in each of the 50 states apply only to residents of those states. Under the American federal system, the U. S. Constitution is the source of authority for the national government, and the state constitutions are the source of authority for the state governments.
The framers of the Constitution recognized the potential for conflict between the two levels of government, and they used several strategies to avoid it. First, the U.S. Constitution was made supreme over state constitutions. It included a clause that declared the actions of the national government supreme whenever its constitutional use of power clashed with the states. Also, as part of the campaign to win ratification of the Constitution, the framers agreed to support a Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments, to restrain the national government from interfering with individual liberties.
The American invention of federalism rested on a new idea of sovereignty, or the ultimate power to rule. In English political theory, sovereignty could not be divided – only one government could have ultimate power in a country. But in the events leading up to the American Revolution, the colonists had argued that, in practice, sovereignty in the American colonies was divided. The English Parliament, they argued, controlled all matters relating to the empire as a whole, but the colonies themselves made laws that applied within each colony. Americans had created a new theory of government, one that allowed ultimate power to be divided between two different levels of government.
After the Revolution, Americans wrote a new Constitution that formally divided power between the national government and the states. The Constitution assigned different roles to the two levels of government. State and national power could operate over the same territory and the same people because they focused on different things -- the states on local matters, the national government on national concerns.
A study in evolution
The proper balance between national and state powers is continually debated in American politics. It cannot be settled, President Woodrow Wilson observed, "by the opinion of any one generation." In fact, it is at the heart of the debate between conservatives and liberals in American politics today. Should education policy be controlled by the individual states or from Washington, D.C? Should each state be allowed to have its own policy on the legal use of marijuana, or does the federal government have the power to make marijuana illegal in all fifty states? Is the federal government responsible for making sure all Americans have access to healthcare, or is that a responsibility of the state governments? Many Republicans have argued that Mitt Romney’s healthcare law was fine for the state of Massachusetts to implement, but it is an unconstitutional overreach of federal power when enacted by the U.S. Congress. We are still debating all of these questions, and many more.
Even a casual reading of the Constitution leaves the impression that the federal government is responsible for only a small number of the functions that affect everyday life. Certainly, this was true in our nation’s first century. States made almost all of the governmental decisions that affected the lives of their citizens. They defined all crimes and punishments, regulated public health and safety, and set the legal standards for education, welfare, and morality. Even today, most of the laws that affect you directly are state laws.
The federal government has, however, expanded its power steadily over our nation’s history. The Civil War, fought over the question of slavery, greatly expanded the power of the national government with the abolition of slavery and the 14th Amendment which defined citizenship throughout the nation. Slavery and citizenship had always been left to the states before, but with victory in the Civil War, the federal government took control of these areas to protect the rights of African Americans. However, the Civil War did not answer all the questions about the proper division of power between the national and state governments
During the last half of the 19th century, the United States became a manufacturing giant, a development accompanied by a corresponding rise of large cities, great concentrations of wealth, and serious social problems. The rise of unregulated big business in the late 19th and early 20th century brought problems of corporations with too much power, which most Americans found as threatening as a government with too much power.
No state could effectively deal with the problems presented by America’s rapidly growing economy. So the federal government began to assume this responsibility. By 1887, national legislation emerged to regulate monopolies. Within twenty years, Congress had passed laws governing everything from national lotteries to the liquor trade to the food and drug industry. Again, decisions which had previously been left to the states were now in the hands of the federal government.
Later, in the 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal economic programs further expanded federal power in response to the economic crisis of the Great Depression. Congressional measures paved the way for federal regulation of agriculture, minimum wages, labor relations, transportation, communications, and banking and finance. In addition, the federal government began using tax dollars to put citizens to work, and created Social Security to take care of Americans in their retirement.
The New Deal created a large, powerful national government that the emergencies of World War II and the Cold War only strengthened. The federal government now maintained a large standing army and vast national security service for the first time in our history. These changes, most Americans agreed, were necessary to protect the nation from the growing threat of Soviet communism.
The role of the federal government continued to expand during the last half of the 20th century. By the end of the century national power reached almost every aspect of American life. The effect was perhaps most apparent in the words most people chose when asked to identify their citizenship. Throughout most of the nation's history, a significant number of citizens identified themselves as a citizen of their particular state; by the end of the 20th century, most Americans considered themselves citizens of their nation first.
Americans have long believed that centralized power threatens liberty, and they traditionally have feared the use of power by a distant national government. Dividing power between two levels of government was one solution to the problem of how to grant necessary authority to government without creating such concentrated power that liberty would suffer. The states, the level of government closest to the people, serve to limit the power of the national government. The idea is that people are willing to trust a government that they can control, and Americans feel they can control their state governments more than their national government. This belief explains why most Americans continue to want local control of the institutions that affect their everyday lives: police, schools, and hospitals, for example. In theory and practice, federalism addresses both local and national needs within a framework of limited power.

Mr. Maurer Name: _______________________

U.S. Government Date: __________________
Federal System Reading Multiple Choice Questions – Please put your answers in the blanks.
_____ 1. Why does the author begin the passage by discussing the 2000 election?

a. It is the best example of federalism in action in American history.

b. It illustrates the idea of federalism and is an event that most readers will be familiar with.

c. Presidential elections play a key role throughout the passage.

d. The 2000 election caused a major re-evaluation of the federal system in America.
______2. How did the events leading up to the American Revolution help lay the groundwork for the federal system created in the Constitution?

a. They allowed Americans to imagine a system where sovereignty was divided because that’s the way the British Empire was actually governed in practice, if not in theory.

b. The British officially adopted a political philosophy that emphasized divided sovereignty.

c. The Declaration of Independence (1776) first outlined the American federal system in response to these events.

d. Americans knew they had to create a central government that was stronger than the British government in order to effectively govern the new American nation.
______3. Which of these historical events helped the federal government expand its power?

a. The Civil War b. The Great Depression c. World War II

d. all of the above e. none of the above
_____ 4. According to the passage, the growth in manufacturing and the rise of corporate monopolies in the late 19th and early 20th century led to expanded federal power because

a. Roosevelt’s New Deal was needed to respond to these changes.

b. the founders had always intended the federal government to take a larger role in the economy than it had in the early 1800s.

c. a convention of state governments requested the federal government to take an increased role in the economy.

d. the state governments were not capable of dealing with the problems created by America’s rapidly growing economy.
_____5. According to the passage, why do Americans want their state and local governments to control functions like police, schools, and hospitals?

a. Americans feel the national government is incapable of handling these issues.

b. The national government has tried before to handle these functions and failed.

c. Americans feel that state and local governments are more directly controlled by the people.

d. Americans do not prefer to have state and local governments control these functions.
______ 6. In general, which of these best describes what has happened in our federal system over time?
a. The state governments have become more and more powerful, while the federal government has become less powerful.
b. The federal government has become more and more powerful, while the state governments have become less and less powerful.
c. The federal government and the state governments have both become less powerful.
d. The relationship between the federal government and the state governments has not changed significantly.

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