Federalism refers to a political structure with two or more levels of government exercising control over the same territory and citizens. In a federal system, these levels consist of the federal or central government and constituent political units referred to as state or provincial or territorial governments; creating a federation. These governments are supreme when exercising power within their sphere of authority.
Power and resources in such systems are divided between the central and regional governments with some level of autonomy. The central government usually has oversight over issues of concern to the whole country while the state or regional governments deal with local issues. A federation should not be confused with a confederation which is analogous to a federal system but confers less power to the central government with constituent political entities retaining ultimate control of their own policies. This was the case in America pursuant to the Articles of Confederation in the 18th Century.
Federalism was introduced in America by the Constitution in 1791 (LaCroix, 2010). The Constitution strengthened the central government and also conferred to congress broad powers some of which are not shared with the states. It also provided that in case of a conflict, the national laws shall prevail over the state laws. It also preserved some powers for the state governments. The Constitution further provided for concurrent powers which are shared by both governments.
The Tenth Amendment
The basic principle of federalism is captured by the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution which was ratified on the 15th of December, 1791. The Amendment specifies that powers not granted to the national government are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people. The import of this amendment in addition to judicial interpretation of the same, especially the case of United States v. Darby¸ 312 U.S 100, 124 (1941) is that the federal government is limited only to the powers conferred by the Constitution.
Pursuant to this amendment, the federal government cannot compel a state to enforce a federal statute. Such a law would be unconstitutional as was held in New York v. United States, 505 U.S 144 (1992). Similarly, in Printz v. United States, 521 U.S 898 (1997) it was held that any law that compelled participation of a state’s executive in the administration of a federal program was unconstitutional. Ideally the federal government may encourage states to adopt certain policies but they cannot force them.
In summary therefore, in light of the amendment, if a certain power is not constitutionally conferred to the federal government, the states may exercise it. Such exercise of the power by the state should however not be prohibited by the Constitution. Additionally, under the amendment people are free to act, without leave of the federal government, in areas not within the scope of the national government’s powers (Lieberman, 2008).
The Fourteenth Amendment
The 14th Amendment deals with citizenship, due process, equal protection, apportionment of representatives and validity of public debt. The citizenship clause outlines citizenship and safeguards civil and political rights from being breached or denied by any state. The clause stipulates that such rights can only be deprived under and with due process of the law. Essentially it confers equal protection to all citizens regardless of their State.
This clause was a rejoinder to the Black Codes passed by Southern States attempting to restrict the rights of former slaves (Foner, 1988). Through it the federal government determines the issues of citizenship and civil and political rights so as to attain equal protection under the law. In essence, privileges and immunities to citizens are granted by the federal government by virtue of national citizenship.
The Amendment also altered the manner in which states receive representation in the House of Representatives. If a state blocks adult men from voting, its representation is reduced proportionately (Lieberman, 2008). The amendment also prohibits the election or appointment of persons who have committed insurrection, treason or rebellion. Congress can however waive this restriction by a two-thirds vote. By this clause the federal government is able to restrict state action as regards disenfranchisement (Chin, 2004) and electoral abuse.
In relation to public debt, the amendment confirms the legitimacy of provided that it is appropriated by Congress. This means that states are bound to contribute to any public debt incurred by the federal government if the same was approved by Congress. There however have been conflicting views as to whether the executive can unilaterally raise or overlook the debt ceiling.
Chin, Gabriel J. "Reconstruction, Felon Disenfranchisement, and the Right to Vote: Did the Fifteenth Amendment Repeal Section 2 of the Fourteenth?" Georgetown Law Journal 2004
Foner, E. Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 Perennial Classics, 1988.
LaCroix, Alison L. The Ideological Origins of American Federalism. Harvard University Press.
Lieberman, Jethro K. "Constitution of the United States." Microsoft® Student 2009 [DVD].
Redmond, WA: Microsoft Corporation, 2008.