Why Federalism Works

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Saturday, March 15, 2003
Early in my congressional career, I discovered a simple truth about our governmental system: it's confusing. Like most new members of Congress, I'd taken office with visions of wrestling with the future of our Republic. So it came as a small shock to learn that much of what my constituents wanted from me was help in navigating the federal, state and local bureaucracies. 

If you think back to your seventh-grade civics class, you'll remember learning about a system that resembles a layer cake, with local government at the bottom, the states in the middle, and the federal government at the top, all clearly delineated. That's still how most of us think of "federalism," or the division of responsibilities among different levels of government. But we're hopelessly out of date. If anything, the American political system is like a marble cake, with a blend of elected and appointed officials from all levels of government sharing policy and program duties. 

Think about transportation, for instance. It's difficult enough to figure out which agency at which level of government maintains a particular stretch of roadway. But it can be next to impossible to untangle how a given decision got made about, say, widening a road. The funding was provided by Congress, as were certain guidelines on how the money could be spent, but the specifics were up to a welter of state, county and local elected officials and highway engineers. You can find the same assortment of responsibilities in everything from the administration of welfare benefits to law enforcement to cleaning up toxic waste. 

There's a reason for this. As with many of the questions we sort through as a nation, the basic framework for dividing governmental responsibilities was set by the Constitution. Though the Founders were quite specific on some matters– states, for instance, don't have the power to declare war or coin money– they deliberately left much room for flexibility. Just as they believed that dividing power among the various branches of the federal government would make it more responsive, so would dividing power among the different levels. "[It]is not by the consolidation, or concentration of powers, but by their distribution, that good government is effected," Thomas Jefferson wrote in his Autobiography. "Were not this great country already divided into states, that division must be made, that each might do for itself what concerns itself directly, and what it can so much better do than a distant authority... Were we directed from Washington when to sow, and when to reap, we should soon want bread." 

And so, over the decades, each level of government has seen its share of responsibilities ebb and flow with the demands of the era. The New Deal, for instance, brought new power to Washington, with its myriad of federal agencies helping American individuals and communities cope with the aftermath of the Depression; so, too, did the civil rights movement, which relied on federal authority to bring about change in the states. On the other hand, over the last two decades a mix of federal cutbacks, legislative changes, and Supreme Court decisions have returned authority to the states and even local communities. In some cases, this has been driven by the belief that problems should be resolved closer to where people actually live, rather than by federal power. In other cases, it has been driven by practicality, as new approaches to problems bubble up from the states– as was the case with welfare reform. 

We live in an era that is more difficult to categorize. On the one hand, the federal government is responding to the threat of terrorism by expanding and consolidating its power, especially for its various law enforcement and national security agencies. At the same time, however, the attorneys general in the various states have responded to a vacuum at the federal level by taking on responsibility for consumer enforcement in everything from policing Wall Street to tackling antitrust cases, as when they sued drug makers for trying to block lower-cost generic competitors. The distribution of power is constantly shifting, and sometimes, as at the moment, it moves in different directions simultaneously. 

For an ordinary citizen trying to get answers to a specific problem, this can be confusing; it's why, when I was in Congress, my staff and I spent so much time directing constituents to the office and the level of government that could best help them. It can also lead to conflict within the system, as when states sue a federal agency they believe has failed to live up to its responsibilities. But in the end, the flexibility created by our Constitution allows for a pragmatic response to the evolving challenges we face as a nation. It creates the chance for policy-makers to gauge whether problems are best confronted in town halls or state capitals or in Washington– or in some combination of all of them– and then to work together to assign each level of government its appropriate role. That these roles change over time is a sign not of weakness, but of the system's enduring strength. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)