Chapters

Chapter 2: Federalism

2.A – Introduction

      More than any other aspect of U.S. government structure, federalism contributes significantly to innovation in state, local and national government alike.1 However, it is unlikely that the contemporary impacts of federalism in postindustrial America were fully anticipated by the framers of the U.S. constitution.  The Founders were driven to a much greater extent by a desire to strike a balance in political power between a nascent national government and the several pre-existing state governments than in promoting innovation and the capacity to adapt to ever changing socio-economic and environmental circumstances.  The adoption of a federal form of government at the outset of our nation’s history reflected an appreciation for the cultural heterogeneity that characterized the original thirteen states.2 As the intergovernmental relationships between the federal government and the several states have evolved over time, however, federalism in America has repeatedly proven to serve as an important institutional asset in the service of sustainability.

      This chapter will demonstrate how a variety of incentive structures propel state and local governments toward greater open-mindedness, experimentation, and learning from experience than is generally the case with the national government.  Unlike the more insulated federal government, the several states and their many local governments face increasingly vexing and complex social and economic challenges which cannot be brushed aside in favor of engagement in the rough-and-tumble of global politics and national partisan competition; citizens in our towns, cities, counties and states frequently demand that action be taken to address their immediate concerns for the quality of life where they live, and they tend to expect tangible results from their state and local governments.

      Law enforcement services and community safety are good examples of such concerns for immediate tangible results.  When criminal activity increases in a state or local jurisdiction, citizens often call for stricter laws, stiffer penalties for violations, and more robust enforcement; the sidestepping of issues and the shifting of blame to others are generally not acceptable dodges of responsibility to citizens calling for effective action.  The heightened visibility of problems at the state and local level, and the demand for quick solutions to those problems, commonly place a heavy burden on state and local governments for timely action. While this often intense atmosphere can be quite stressful for state and local policymakers, some of the very best and most innovative solutions to tough problems emerge from this setting – leading to the development of solutions that promote the sustainability of states and local communities in one location that are often copied, modified and implemented in other state and local government settings across the nation.

      The term federalism refers to a formal legal relationship between one or more levels of government vertically organized, and a whole host of relationships between similar levels of government horizontally organized.  As Watts notes, the highly regarded late scholar of federalism Daniel Elazar viewed federalism as a complex contractual arrangement; for Elazar federalism represents a form of “shared rule plus self rule — and a balance between cooperation and competition among the general and constituent governments.”3 The structure of American federalism was initially intended to protect pre-existing units of government (the states), and serve as an authoritative method of assigning or dividing responsibilities among the levels of government.  In contrast, contemporary approaches to American federalism — the result of over a century of change — clearly emphasize collaboration among and across units of government while continuing to respect the distinctive priorities and needs of populations in different state and local jurisdictions.  Today, an expansive and flexible understanding of American federalism represents a clear opportunity for innovation rather than representing a strict limitation on what actions any particular level of government is allowed to take.

Learning Objectives

This chapter will:

  • explore the historical evolution of federalism
  • discuss different models of federalism which have evolved over time
  • outline a model of intergovernmental relations which promotes sustainability in state and local government
  • consider the future of American federalism

 

 

 

2.B – Units of Government

      While most of us are aware that there is one national government and there are fifty state governments, we often lose sight of the fact that there are other units of government that serve our everyday needs.  In fact, in the U.S. there are 90,056 units of government beyond the national government and the fifty state governments.  Each of these units of government offers some degree of opportunity for citizens to make their priorities known and to make demands upon government.  The existence of such a multitude of governmental bodies provides Americans with myriad opportunities to become involved in the political process and to “make a difference” in the quality of life in their respective communities.

      Beyond the prominent national and state governments of which most of us are well aware, there are several additional important types of government that are prominent: counties, municipalities, townships, school districts, and special purpose districts.  As of 2012, there are 3,031 counties in the U.S.  Some states have very few counties — Delaware contains only three — while some states have many counties for example, Texas has 254. The number of local governments has increased by 0.6 percent between the 2007 and 2012 Census of Governments, while the overall number of governments has decreased by 22.9 percent from 116,807 in the 1952 Census of Governments. According to the 2012 Census of Governments by the U.S. Census Bureau:

  • Illinois leads the nation with 6,968 local governments — approximately 2,000 more than second-place Pennsylvania.
  • Hawaii has 21 local governments, the fewest of any state.
  • Texas remains first in the nation with the most independent school districts at 1,079. Closely behind is California, with 1,025 independent school districts.
  • Seventeen states had more special districts compared with 2007, and 29 had fewer. Five states had no change.
  • Ten states had fewer townships because of mergers and consolidations. Kansas decreased the most, moving from 1,353 in 2007 to 1,268 in 2012, a decrease of 85.

      While the growth of the national government is a frequent topic of discussion in the news media, the fact of the matter is that local government is the more dynamic component of public sector growth by quite a margin.  Special purpose districts are one of the biggest areas for growth in this regard.  There are over 51,146 special purpose districts in the U.S. at this time.  The U.S. Bureau of the Census places special purpose districts into four major categories:  Natural Resources; Fire Protection; Housing and Community Development; and “Other” Special Districts.  Such other special districts relate to water districts, irrigation districts, sewer districts, road districts, public utility districts, port districts, cemetery districts, etc.  One rather unique aspect of American federalism is the ability of state and local governments to create special purpose districts. We will see in this chapter how this aspect of American government plays a substantial role in the promotion of community sustainability.

 

 

2.C – Historic Roots of Federalism

      The origin of American federalism offers great insight into the values which define American culture, and which have guided the development of our public institutions.  As a governing arrangement, federalism occupies a space somewhere between confederal systems and unified systems.4

      The first governing relationship in the “break away” colonies of former British North America was confederal.  Following the achievement of independence in the Revolutionary War, the former colonies operated as sovereign governmental powers.  The term sovereignty means that a political authority (in this case each colony) recognizes no higher power as a rightful restraint upon its action, and maintains the full right to agree or desist from any collective action with other political authorities of equal status.  Under the Articles of Confederation5 state sovereignty was duly recognized.  The Articles bound the states to little more than a promise to engage in mutual armed defense.  The Confederation rather quickly proved to be ineffective at coordinating goals or developing cooperative relationships among and between the thirteen state members.

      The confederal governing arrangement was the exact opposite of the form of government from which the colonies had separated — namely, the unitary form of government.  Under unitary government, political power is concentrated in a single location in the hands of a single office (the sovereign) or among a centralized national elite (elected or otherwise).  All units of government at the sub-national level exist entirely at the mercy of the national government, and they exercise only those powers expressly delegated by the sovereign authority.  Lacking sovereignty, in unitary forms of government all sub-national units of government can be created and abolished at the will of the sovereign national government.

Under the second American constitutional arrangement — the U.S. Constitution (1787) — the Founders shared the belief that the confederal system had not been effective and that a governmental arrangement somewhere between confederal and unitary government would more effectively meet the needs of the new nation.6 American federalism creates some elements of national sovereignty in particular areas of law and governance, while embedding strong protections for state government in many other areas of public life.7  Over the years the U.S. Supreme Court has had frequent occasion to adjudicate disputes concerning the relative powers of the federal and state governments under the U.S. Constitution, and for the most part those decisions have permitted the national government to extend its powers while at the same time keeping state sovereignty principally in tact.

 

 

2.D – Advantages to Federalism

      Over the course of the nation’s history it is clear that there are many advantages to federalism.  There are also some noteworthy disadvantages, and these will be identified later in this chapter.  For the time being the focus rests on advantages.    Six particular advantages merit some discussion here:8

      1. Myriad of governmental units. Many opportunities exist for citizens to directly influence policy decisions in their respective states or communities;

      2. Competition between units of government.  Competition between jurisdictions for citizens, business investments, and talent may lead to government efficiency.  State and local governments tend to become entrepreneurial, offering greater benefits for the tax dollar9[1] or reducing tax burdens to attract citizens and businesses seeking to reduce their fixed costs of operation.

      3. Incentives to prevent growth in government and promote efficiency. The competitive nature of federalism is comparable to many aspects of free market capitalism.  When government is a monopolistic provider, it is more likely to overproduce goods and services.

      4. Responsiveness to citizens is enhanced. If a unit of government becomes too costly, citizens can either demand improved services or move elsewhere.

      5. Federalism is correlated with local government efforts to support private economic growth. The provision of competitively priced infrastructure resources (e.g., roads, utility services, schools, medical services, recreational amenities, etc.) is a critical ingredient in any model of economic growth.  Economic development, in turn, generally creates jobs and enhances household incomes.

      6. Federalism stimulates public and private innovation, often in active partnership. The existence of federalism in the U.S. facilitates the systematic “reinvention of government.”10[2] The speed with which creative solutions to locally-experienced problems are replicated is enhanced by the progressive professionalization of state and local government employees and the use of the Internet to capture, store, and disseminate information on a national (and even global) scale.

 

 

2.E – Potential Challenges facing Federalism

      While the advantages of federalism almost certainly outweigh the costs for most scholars writing in this area, federalism does face some potential challenges in application in many circumstances.  Three such challenges are:

      1. Federalism can produce unequal outcomes between states, across communities, and for individuals living within these different jurisdictions.  Unequal outcomes are often associated with economic inequalities due to different levels of economic growth across states, and even within states and local communities.  When traveling from city to city, state to state, observe the differences in wealth and opportunity that exist within each location.  At times, these differences are function of city or state capacity to sustain an economic base or to evolve with and adapt to changing economic conditions.

      Historically, states and cities differed considerably in their level of political and social equality.  For decades in many parts of the South, for instance, individual opportunity was systematically biased to benefit whites over persons of color.   A devastating Civil War, major amendments to the U.S. Constitution, and a series of landmark statutes and watershed decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court have all worked to overcome serious inequalities brought about by a malevolent manifestation of state’s rights in service to racial discrimination – all permitted by the institution of federalism.

      2. Federalism potentially produces inefficiency through policy replication. Each state and local government independently formulates, finances and implements public policy. In many ways, this is a good thing because each state and local government has its own special set of circumstances and cultural values encoded in its public policy.      However, there are added costs to having each state and local government essentially replicating many policy choices.  In many cases it would be more efficient to have one uniform policy that efficiently and effectively meets all citizens’ needs in a particular area of public life.

      3. Federalism can, at times, cloud our understanding of who is responsible for public policy outcomes. In federalism, many units of government overlap and, at times, the policy preferences of different levels of government collide—i.e., their goals might be diametrically opposed. When policy failure results, constituents often want to know why things are either not being accomplished or not being managed in a manner reflecting their preferences.  The spectacle of finger-pointing across different levels and units of government leaves citizens confused and, at times, upset with government overall.

 

 

2.F – Models of Federalism

      Political scientists have developed a number of ways to describe and study federalism.   In their highly regarded synthesis of prior research in this area published as an article in Publius: The Journal of Federalism, Donald Rosenthal and James Hoefler11 identify a condensed list of models of American federalism featuring the following core concepts:

  • dual federalism
  • cooperative federalism
  • pragmatic federalism
  • non-centralized federalism
  • nation-centered federalism

 

2.F.I – Dual Federalism:

      According to Lord James Bryce,12 a perceptive British observer of early American political life, the U.S. Constitution represents primarily an attempt to “build a more perfect Union” between the national and state governments.  Strengthening the national government provides for a nationwide common market free of tariffs and barriers to commerce, a condition from which all states would benefit.  Such a national government could also “provide for the common defense” more effectively than was possible under the Articles of Confederation.  While certain governmental powers were expressly enumerated for the national government, the U.S. Constitution recognizes that state sovereignty should be carefully provided for in law.  For the advocates of “states’ rights” the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution served — then as now — as the guarantee of a balanced relationship between national and state government; that provision of the constitution is known as the “reserved powers” amendment which holds that all governmental powers which are not explicitly granted to the national government in the constitution are reserved to the states and their people.13

      In his major work, The American Commonwealth, Lord Bryce noted that even in the post-Civil War period state sovereignty and the notion of dual federalism—namely, two systems fulfilling distinct purposes without any significant overlap in function14-was maintained.   States could not be taxed to finance the national government, which is a principle that remains to this day.  American states were afforded a significant amount of autonomy in creating their own legal systems and governmental institutions.  As long as the authority of the national government was not challenged or constrained in those areas where it was constitutionally authorized to act, states retained a significant degree of sovereignty, in some cases exercising powers concurrently shared with the national government.  For Bryce, dual federalism was feasible in the 18th and 19th centuries largely because the scope of government action was rather restricted and far less complicated than it is today; both levels of government had a strong sense of enumerated, retained, and concurrent powers being exercised within a workable constitutional legal framework.

      The federal-state relationship was fairly simple in the early years of the Republic in part because citizens looked primarily to their local communities to provide the basis of a sustainable existence.  Until the early part of the 20th century, most Americans resided in rural settings — primarily in farming communities or small towns.  There was relatively little overlap in government units, reducing the probability of conflict over resources, or in terms of the impact of public or private choices.

      While the dual federalism model was well suited to its times in pre-industrial America, it suffered from limitations that proved to be insurmountable in due course.  Most importantly, the dual federalism model was largely silent on the issue of the protection of individual rights.  A focus on community-derived notions of a good society within a state can have the deleterious effect of restricting individual rights and liberties, particularly those of vulnerable minorities.  In reflection of the dual federalism concept, in the case Barron v. Baltimore, Maryland (1830) the U.S. Supreme Court narrowly defined the national government’s role in protecting the basic liberties and rights of citizens, leaving to the states and their respective constitutions the lion’s share of responsibility in this area of American law.  The Court ruled that those rights set forth in the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the U.S. constitution) applied to the relationship between states and the national government rather than the relationship between citizens and the national government.  The Court left it to the states to decide matters such as what constitutes freedom of speech, the right to counsel a jury of one’s peers, and due process of law in criminal cases.

      Some of the Founders had argued that dual federalism was an unworkable idea, but it took over a century before the social inequities associated with the dual federal model became widely recognized.15 In looking back over the history of American federalism, one could conclude that much of our history has been spent trying to maximize both the exercise of “freedom and the pursuit of happiness” by citizens and provide for the welfare of the nation, its states, and the communities within which our citizens reside.  This simultaneous pursuit of individual liberty and collective welfare has always been a challenge for our nation, and it continues to demand the best of our thinking.  In the contemporary setting many of our states and local communities endeavor to build a sustainable foundation for life for both present and future generations of Americans.

 

2.F.II – Cooperative Federalism:

      The dual federalism model survived the Civil War and remained fairly prominent up until the final decades of the 19th century.  The emergence of cooperative federalism — the notion that the presence of urgent shared goals required concerted effort by all levels of government — was, in part, the result of:

  • the growth of urbanism and demise of intimate small communities;
  • large-scale industrialization and rapid population growth through mass immigration;
  • The expansion of the role of the national government as the guarantor of individual rights and liberties.

      These changes in American society inspired many reformers within cities and in some of the states (i.e., Progressives) to press for government “regulation in the public interest.”  The growth of corporate capitalism led to major excesses in the use of private power to the detriment of the public good and the exploitation of the most disadvantaged, and in time gave rise to unionization, social regulation and political reform of machine politics    arising from the corruption of public institutions.  From a sociological perspective, industrialization and urbanization have led to a dispersal of community members so that people are more likely to be highly mobile.  Ironically, Americans tended to adopt a lifestyle of personal independence from family and kin and neighbors alike, becoming more distant from one another in terms of private choices. This impermanency created a false sense of independence even though societal inter-dependence actually increased with innovation with respect to what forms of transportation are used, what forms of energy are consumed, and what food products are consumed.

      During this period social inequities grew, both in terms of the stratification of wealthy and impoverished classes and in terms of inequities associated with the status of women, unorganized labor and racial and ethnic minorities.  Many influential writers and prominent decision-makers of the time contributed in different ways to the progressive vision for the U.S., one that relied heavily on a cooperative relationship between all levels of government responding in a coordinated way to rapid social change.  In many ways, the aforementioned changes challenged the capacity of American democracy, in general, and federalism more particularly, to respond to modern dilemmas using an 18th century model of governance.

      The Progressive reformers of this period believed that many of the positive communitarian aspects of American community and society—the obligation to help neighbors in need, reciprocating a kindness with a kindness in return, volunteering one’s time to civic projects, participating in local governance, etc.) —as described in the historical writings on America penned by the foreign observers Alexis de Tocqueville16 and Lord James Bryce, were in peril.  Progressives were at once reflective and visionary in their thinking, embracing an idealized vision of an American past but taking a pragmatic approach of action, free of the constraints created by partisan ideology.  The concept of cooperative federalism was developed to expedite the process of addressing serious social and economic problems through forceful governmental action.  The combined use of local, state and national government authority in addressing public health and safety was commonplace, with the guiding principle being “use what works best” in the best sense of pragmatism.17

      Some critics of cooperative federalism have argued that this model of federalism represents a national government attempt to pull power away from the state and local governments.  In fact, the roots of Progressivism can be traced directly back to state and local government; it was an idea first born at the local level, not at the national level of public political dialogue.  Progressivism recognized many of the very serious social and economic dilemmas that had been largely unaddressed for quite some time:  women’s rights, minority rights, public health and sanitation problems, food and water safety and availability, homelessness, community planning, open and fair government and elections, and accessible and equitable public education, to name but a few of the major issues—issues that remain important and yet today are not addressed as fully as they should be.  How these issues are addressed constitutes the foundation of community sustainability, and affects group and individual rights alike.

      On the state and local level, Progressivism accomplished a great deal in relation to the aforementioned goals.   It is fair to say that many national government efforts were noteworthy, but overall were less pronounced than those witnessed at state and local government levels.  President Theodore Roosevelt made important in-roads through efforts to promote food and drug safety.  Additionally, he challenged the growth of corporate capitalism, which was central to the complex relationship of the individual, the private market, and the public forum.  President William Howard Taft’s Commission on Economy and Efficiency served as the foundation of the modern bureaucratic systems needed for national government response to progressive demands.  Finally, Governor Robert LaFollette (R-Wisconsin) and Governor (and later U.S. President) Woodrow Wilson (D-New Jersey) both campaigned and advanced progressive agendas for political campaign and election reform. Large-scale national progressive reform was not realized until President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.  While critics might claim that many aspects of FDR’s efforts were nation-centered, the outcomes of FDR’s programs have demonstrated over time that many New Deal programs were, in effect, a reflection of cooperative federalism operating under dire socio-economic conditions.

      Cooperative federalism occurs on many points along a continuum of varying locus of action.  Top-down models are generally characterized by considerable national government influence in relation to the states.  An example of top-down federalism might be seen in the area of environmental policies, which are designed to establish national guidelines for environmental quality for the benefit of all citizens.  Conversely, bottom-up federalism often entails innovations originating at the state and local level that, in time, reach national level policy agendas.  Welfare reform, for instance, originated at the state level in Wisconsin.  The innovation was touted as a policy success and became a focus of national policy with the national Welfare Reform Act of 1996.  Over the long run, bottom-up and top-down federalism necessitate a cooperative framework; at the very least, government agencies must accede to the concurrent power and authority of another level of government.

      Given the examples above, it is tempting to fall into the trap of associating top-down with “liberal” and bottom-up with “conservative” political ideologies.  In reality, both political liberals and conservatives alternately see value in both ends of the ideological continuum.  Although a shift away from the strong nation-centered federalism of the Johnson years (1964-1969) occurred, primarily during the Reagan presidency (1981-1989), that shift tended to slow and retreat during the George H.W. Bush presidency.18  Federalism scholar Paul Peterson has pointed out that many of President George W. Bush’s policies have moved the Republican agenda towards a more top-down model of federalism.19 Homeland security20 and education reforms such as No Child Left Behind have increased national government influence over state and local government priorities and, to some degree, led to structural changes in the way services are delivered at the local level.21 Natural disasters such as Hurricanes Katrina and Rita illustrate the limits of the national government to solve local problems of substantial scope and scale.22

      By themselves, shifting social and political institutional values do not fully explain the nature23 of cooperative federalism in the United States.   Evolving legal theories established by the Supreme Court were critical not only to the constitutional legitimacy of cooperative federalism, but also to the initiation of movement along the top-down/bottom-up federalism continuum.

 

2.F.III – Pragmatic Federalism:

      Rosenthal and Hoefler24 indicate that pragmatic federalism was in part borne out of disenchantment with cooperative federalism.   The latter approach was premised on the notion that behavioral science of the 1950s and 1960s could be used to guide national-level policy choices, identifying target populations and meeting needs.   Social science would guide policy makers at the national government level to tailor policy responses and interactions with state and local policy makers—in essence, the concept entailed the creation through social science of a cooperative intergovernmental relationship.  Unfortunately, many policy prescriptions guided by the behavioral approach failed because the model often ignored many unquantifiable aspects of the policy process such as the interaction between policy institutions, values, preferences, and effective solutions.

      Pragmatic federalism is characterized by two unique qualities:  (1) flexibility—it is outcome-driven rather than process-driven; and (2) the downplaying of the philosophy of government, meaning the set theories about the proper relationship between the national government and state governments are of limited interest in this model.25  Ad hoc network relationships are considered more important than ex ante approaches (i.e., build the relationship around the problem to be solved rather than make the problem fit around a pre-conceived notion of the relationship).

      Several Democratic state governors began to take a significant role in both the identification and advancement of this new approach to federalism.  A political scientist, former county administrative officer and later a two-term Maryland Governor, Parris Glendening (and co-author Reeves) wrote one of the earlier accounts of this new model of federalism in a 1984 book entitled Pragmatic Federalism:  An Intergovernmental View of American Government.  In his various roles as local and state official, Glendening’s account of pragmatic federalism is built on both theory and practice as he experienced it.

      When Glendening and Reeves developed their approach in the mid-1980s, it was in response to a growing interest in the centralizing tendencies on the part of American national government.26  At a time when President Ronald Reagan, a champion of smaller national government, was riding high in the opinion polls, Glendening and Reeves argued that a reversal of the centralizing trend, if it occurred at all, was unlikely to become part of a long-term trend.  They argued that the concentration of authority in a centralized government structure was an historical trend that would continue, but that the nature of the trend must be considered and shaped in a manner most beneficial to all stakeholder governments and to public service recipients.

      Glendening and Reeves tied three very important phenomena together in their effort to explain the value of pragmatic federalism.  First, following on a strong tradition in the academic literature of questioning rigid bureaucratic approaches to policy formulation and implementation, Glendening and Reeves argued for greater reliance on informal relationships between policy actors who are guided by circumstance rather than organizational structure. Second, they favored movement towards proactive street-level policymaking and analysis whenever possible.  Finally, a growing trend towards public-private partnerships in solving problems and a shared-governance movement played an important role in shaping Glendening and Reeve’s innovative approach to thinking about American federalism.

      At the time Glendening and Reeves were writing their account of federalism, Governor Bill Clinton (D-Arkansas) was promoting a similar new governance model.   Interestingly, both Glendening and Clinton were raised in relative poverty in Florida and Arkansas, respectively.   In both cases, they had witnessed first-hand the positive role of government in shaping the lives of the least fortunate members of American society.  Both men had gone on to become prominent state-level politicians in the 1980s.   Importantly, neither forgot the role of government in their lives. They also felt that public sentiment regarding the size of the national government had more to do with the outcomes of government operations and less to do with the government’s process and policy goals.

      The decline of the cooperative federalism model was fueled in part by significant changes to methods of funding programs.   Discussed later in this chapter, funding in the form of grants-in-aid emanating from the national level to meet program goals was increasingly made in the form of block grants — revenue transfers which gave state and local governments considerable flexibility in determining specific policy goals and methods of meeting those goals.  During the Reagan years, the national government retreated in its support of many policy areas; the public need was still present, but solutions and funding were left up to leaders in state and local governments.

      Entrepreneurial-minded state and local government leaders, such as Glendening and Clinton, provide sterling examples of the practicality of pragmatic federalism, which is can be considered an innovation in public management that refines our evolving federal system.27 The success of Democratic and Republican policy leaders alike at the state and local level in the last two decades of the 20th century offer time-tested support for a pragmatic approach to federalism—a model in which resources, goals, and public/private stakeholders and entrepreneurs are brought together to craft solutions to  priority public concerns.

 

2.F.IV – Non-Centralized Federalism:

      Non-centralized models of federalism can be traced to a growing skepticism over the dominant role of Congress and the national government in intergovernmental relations.   In the 1960s, Daniel Elazar wrote his now-classic account Federalism: A View from the States in which he illustrated the considerable and persisting political and social diversity present in the U.S.28 In the 1950s and 1960s, a period where cooperative and nation-centered federalism held sway, Elazar’s analysis was in contradistinction to commonly held views of federalism that downplayed long-standing state and regional diversity.

      Non-centralized federalism tends to look to historically chronicled analysis and community-based approaches for understanding American federalism.  Working from the premise that strong democracy relies most immediately on stalwart local communities and robust public and/or private institutions, advocates for non-centralized federalism argue for a more individual-focused approach, relying on the individual consumer acting in market-transaction to solve his or her own dilemmas rather than with the community through collective decision-making.  The former approach — built on the principles of communitarianism — is closely tied to pragmatic federalism and to an historical interpretation of community-level decision-making capacity, while the latter approach is often built on classical liberalism, which emphasizes a limited role for government.

      Advocates for non-centralized federalism share a common desire to ensure that the citizen-stakeholder plays a critical role in decision-making.  In Democracy in America — a book often quoted by non-centralism advocates — Alexis de Tocqueville expresses similar concern regarding the possibility of unwisely limiting the roles of citizen and community as decision-making is centralized in the hands of professional administrators.

      Not all communities possess an equal capacity for extensive citizen stakeholder participation.  Over decades, in some cases centuries, political and social traditions slowly evolve, producing norms of participation and views about the role of citizens, government and the interchange between the two.  Elazar places these different traditions under the rubric known as political culture.  In his analysis, Elazar identifies three major categories of political and social relationships: individualistic, moralistic, and traditionalistic.

      Individualistic political culture fits well within the classical liberal tradition of non-centralized federalism.  Within individualistic political cultures, most problems are seen in terms of individual solutions — communal solutions are not highly valued.  Individualistic traditions look at most problems in terms of private property rights dilemmas.  Solutions, therefore, are viewed as being best identified through the proper transfer of rights.  For example, the individualist would see poverty as being best solved through the exchange of property:  a person’s labor (property) for a salary (property) to be used to purchase food (property).    In individualistic political cultures, non-centralized federalism would largely mean limited government at all levels and reliance on the marketplace to meet demands or solve problems.

      In moralistic political cultures, problems and solutions are viewed quite a bit differently.  Moralists tend to see problems in terms of community dilemmas that must be identified through interchange and community choice.  Solutions are proffered in an open public forum and agreement on solutions is generally seen as best determined through widespread mutual agreement.  The New England town hall meeting is often held up as a classic example of governance in a moralistic political culture.  Non-centralized federalism, therefore, is more likely to be viewed as the optimum method of creating an inclusive public dialogue about government and governing.  Moralistic political culture is horizontally organized, placing significant emphasis on the role of all individuals regardless of their social status or economic position within society.

      Traditionalistic political culture is vertically organized, which means that individuals in positions of power have greater influence in the decision-making process than individuals who hold lower political, social or economic status.   In traditionalistic political cultures, a limited view of collective decision-making excludes most citizen-stakeholder voices in the governance process.  Citizens in a traditionalistic political culture tend not to expect to play a role in governance at the state and local level—they tend to defer to the aforementioned elites.  In traditionalistic political culture, non-centralized federalism may work to the disadvantage of the mass while benefiting elites and their allies.

      According to Elazar, traditionalistic political cultures are most prominent in the American South.  While conditions have changed a great deal over the last several decades, poverty in the South and responses to poverty provide a solid example of the negative impact of traditionalistic political culture.  President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty in the 1960s uncovered the extent of political, social, and economic disparity.  Traditionalistic elites in the rural South chose to ignore poverty as an issue for reasons related to racial discrimination and contempt of elites for the lower social classes.  National government intervention was the first major step towards alleviating poverty in the South, albeit the issues of institutionalized racism and endemic poverty have not entirely faded from the political scene, either in the South or in many other areas of the country.

      Based on compelling evidence produced through political culture theory and considerable social science, moralistic political culture presents the greatest opportunity for equal access and broadly inclusive dialogue, and widely accepted choices and outcomes.  When considering conflict in relation to the non-centralized federalism model, an underlying assumption is that the scope of conflict will be largely contained to the state or local level.  In moralistic political cultures, governance is constructed in a way where support for public solutions to identified collective dilemmas is initially strong and remains strong on a consistent and prolonged basis.  Individualistic political cultures are less likely to identify problems as requiring collective action — the marketplace is seen as the provider of solutions to individual wants and needs and property rights exchange.  As a consequence, a strong central government is not a likely solution for the individualist.  Conflict in an individualistic political culture will arise over issues related to property rights exchange and are less likely to be contained at the local level.  Non-centralized federalism leads to highly biased governance choices and outcomes. Potentially, non-centralized federalism could increase conflict as citizens actively seek redress at “higher” levels of government when demands or needs are not addressed in local or state governance processes.

 

 

2.G – 21st Century Network Approaches to Federalism

      Two major conditions led to dramatic change in the character of federalism in the U.S.   First, as discussed in Chapter 1, technology has forever changed the way in which governance occurs.

Reflections on Government in the Old Days

      Stepping into a county clerk’s office only a generation ago for voter registration, the author found a single employee with index cards and two typewriters—an old manual version and the new electric model.  The sheriff’s office was not dissimilar—a Polaroid camera and flash bulbs lay on the counter for mug shots—there was a teletype machine for important information coming from the state or national level regarding criminal activity, an enormous vacuum tube contraption called the dispatch center (you didn’t dial 911, you dialed “0” and asked the operator to be transferred to the police department)—nobody really sat at the dispatch center, but a burning cigarette in an amber colored glass ash tray indicated that someone was around occasionally.  There was “The Computer” over in the corner, but nobody really knew how to use it except for the sheriff’s young daughter—she played video games on it while she waited for her father to drive her home after school.

      Computers are a central part of the governance process at all levels of government today.   Initially, computer networks were within a single office and were not connected to other networks.  With the advent of the Internet, inter-office networks have expanded exponentially and are increasingly complex — a web of communication connects the government to individuals and to the private sectors.  Technology has made it relatively inexpensive and rather easy to transmit large quantities of information very quickly between decision makers in various government offices, and in the process influence choices and create opportunities for coordination and collaboration across jurisdictions.  Inter-state and inter-local partnerships (or compacts) and agreements of understanding to coordinate efforts and goals have become a prominent aspect of 21st century federalism.29 Building on the idea of pragmatic federalism, the rise of network-based federalism means that day-to-day governance is often circumstance-based and informal, with networks forming around problems and then quickly dissipating after solutions have been arrived at and implemented.

      A second major condition, which has led to a greater reliance on network-approaches to federalism, is the post 9/11 policy environment and the War on Terrorism.  Events related to terrorism and terrorist plots do not honor jurisdictional boundaries.  In attacking enemies, terrorist organizations often use the same technological tools that have made our lives easier—the Internet, rapid forms of transportation, and the ability to network globally.  Homeland Security policies require interagency communication and collaboration as a condition of the receipt of federal funding.  It is the case, of course, that delays in communications posed by jurisdictional squabbles can significantly reduce the ability of government at all levels to plan for and react to emergencies in a timely and effective manner.

      A related condition has been the decline of the traditional fiscal federalism relationship.  In the 1950s and 1960s, policy goals of the national government—in cooperation with state and local government —were supported with financial resources received from the federal government.  This fiscal federalism relationship meant that new policy goals were not as burdensome to state and local government in cost terms as they had been in the past.  Beginning with the Reagan and G.H. Bush presidencies, and moving forward into the Clinton, G. W. Bush and Obama eras, the monetary taps of fiscal federalism have decreased:  federal resources are now in much more limited supply.  Given these conditions, it becomes clear to state and local government leaders that network federalism is a natural solution to reducing costs — essentially, it expands the information and expert “pool” as well as places greater reliance on mutual assistance.30

      How is network federalism different than other forms of federalism?  First, network federalism arrangements are often decentralized to the level of the individual or informal team.  Individuals may be assigned to formal organizations, but most of their work is based on highly situational informal relationships or teams that respond to circumstances.  For example, law enforcement response to riots and natural disasters is often a function of changing circumstances.  Second, the strength of coupling or formal control within and between levels of government or agencies is very limited.  Third, power is informally distributed and redistributed depending upon need rather than convention that had been based on formal vertical power distribution.

There are at least three advantages to the newly emerging model of network federalism:

  • Reduced cost—while governmental units continue to overlap, collaboration means that wasteful stand-alone efforts are limited;
  • Increased effectiveness—network federalism means that individuals converge around a problem based on the nature of a problem at any given moment; and
  • Increased unity of purpose—as governmental units begin to work together to create mutually beneficial successes, there is a greater sense of unity, less jurisdictional squabbling and miscommunication.

      While network federalism sounds like a laudatory solution, there are at least three potential challenges that must be considered in the years to come:

  • Diminished accountability—accountability at all levels of government has posed a challenge.  Informal intergovernmental relationships in network federalism means that discovering and rectifying problematic point sources is nearly impossible.
  • Groupthink—as intergovernmental or interagency teams become more common, group members are more likely to begin to see problems and solutions in a similar manner, essentially eliminating the necessary argumentation that furnishes information about all sides of a problem. Additionally, groupthink can lead to elitist and exclusionary governance processes and outcomes.
  • Centralizing trends—network federalism does not mean that all levels of government have equal resources and capacity to respond to governance issues.  The national level of government is often thought to be well-funded and highly professional in terms of personnel training and leadership.  Networks tend to form around resource providers and leaders as well as those network points where information is most effectively gathered and disseminated.  In many instances, it is likely that networks will form around national government actors while state and local actors might serve in a supporting capacity.

 

 

2.H – Federalism and the Core Dimensions of Sustainability

      Federalism can, and frequently does, work towards the accomplishment of the core goals of sustainability.  Each unit of government is interconnected to other units of government and, as cooperative and network federalism illustrate, there is a need for all of units of government to face the enduring truth:  “we’re all in it together!”    In other words, while each unit of government must consider its own capacity to achieve sustainability, there is a clear sense that working together makes sustainability more likely.    In the U.S. federal system, the social objectives dimension of sustainability is achieved through the porosity of government institutions and the multiple points of contact between citizens and overlapping units of government.  Strong social capital and the collective action of civic-minded communities are often associated with effective and adaptable government.    The economic objectives dimension sustainability is also served by federalism.   Sustainable economics means managing resources at the local level, where citizens are more likely to witness the production process at work and can better scrutinize the sustainability of the economic process in relation to negative environmental impacts produced.  Understanding the true costs and benefits of achieving what is wanted may refocus local consumer attention on which goods and services really do contribute to sustainability.   The environmental dimension of sustainability can benefit from federalism as well.  With multiple points of citizen-government interaction, federalism offers greater opportunity to raise awareness of policies that could damage environmental quality.  Additionally, local management of the environment and common resources may give citizens greater responsibility for the resources from which they collectively derive benefit—good stewardship practiced by multiple actors in a federal system of governance may serve to remind all parties involved of the many different stakeholders who benefit from well-protected environmental resources.  Finally, the institutional dimension of sustainability is well served by federalism.   Institutions operating in a sustainable future government may look and operate differently than the nation’s current paradigm built around 18th and 19th century public and private institutions constructed in far simpler times.  While the desirable values undergirding those institutions might be known—e.g., social and political equity, racial/ethnic/gender equality, intergenerational justice—effective institutional designs may be less understood.  For example, network federalism promises to take governance in new and exciting directions; yet, the exact nature of those new and exciting directions will be shaped by the technology of tomorrow.  Federalism offers the opportunity to experiment with different institutional designs, to determine what works best, when, and for what purpose.

Exercises

Federalism: What Can I Do?

According to public opinion polls conducted by Gallup, a majority of Americans are unaware of the role of the federal government in their local school districts, knowing little is anything about important laws such as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002  (http://www.gallup.com/poll/1612/Education.aspx).
Because education is such an important and expensive function with federal, state and school district levels of governance involved through regulation and finance, informed participation in school board meetings and voting on school funding necessitates some investigation.

 

1. Contact your local school district to see how federal, state and local governments are involved in financing education.

 

2. Attend your local school board meeting to learn about pressing issues facing the school district.

 

3. Contact your state legislators and state department of education to learn how federal government regulations, such as the No Child Left Behind Act, affect state education policy.

 

4. Contact a K-12 teacher in your local school district to discuss how federal, state and local policies affect how they teach in their own classroom.

 

For general information go to: “Education and Federalism,” The Nelson A. Rockefeller School of Government, State University of New York: http://www.rockinst.org/education/federalism.aspx

 

 

 

2.I – Conclusion: Conditions for Sustainable Intergovernmental Relationships

      Readers of this book who are preparing for careers in state or local government or who will work closely with government in one capacity or another will likely deal directly with intergovernmentalism.  Intergovernmental relationships are important in the U.S. because the federal model is not clearly defined.  In a political system where powers are separated between governmental units at national, state and local levels, questions of proper jurisdictional authority will certainly arise in the course of carrying out one’s duties or conducting one’s business affairs.  One noteworthy strength of the U.S. model of federalism lies in the overlapping responsibilities shared by a whole host of governmental units, entities which must cooperate in order to address localized and/or regional problems affecting their constituents.  The overlapping responsibilities and duties can be both a source of angst and a source of strength, bringing a diversity of experience and resources with networks of contacts.  Network federalism has proven to be the more accepted view of U.S. federalism, and is the source of cooperative federalism or intergovernmentalism.

      According to research on sustainable federal systems carried out in the international context, those federal systems that are based in constitutionalism (see Chapter 5) and feature defined powers of each layer of government, are 1. reflective of cultural and geographic diversity, 2. have democratic institutions, and 3. provide adequate resources for governance are the most institutionally sustainable systems.31  One of the most important elements of successful intergovernmental relationships in the U.S. context pertains to resources.  Approximately 70 percent of a typical public agency’s budget goes to salaries for employees.  If proportional weight is any guide, then the most important resource that money buys is people’s time, knowledge, skills, and abilities.  Another important resource purchased by money is the infrastructure of a governmental body and the tangible goods and services needed to produce a desired governmental outcome.  When a county wishes to establish a public health office, money will purchase the time and professional skills of physicians, nurses, and medical supplies needed to accomplish the public health function.  If, however, the state or national government mandates certain health practices — such mandates frequently shape the relationship between governmental entities — then commensurate resources are required to meet the expectations established by those mandates.  A successful intergovernmental relationship often requires the transfer of funds from one unit of government to another.  That being said, some careful observers of American government and some state officials question the amount of federal spending and aid they receive in relation to the amount of federal taxes paid by the citizens and businesses of their state.

      The data reported in Table 2.1 indicate wide disparity among states with respect to how much is paid in federal taxes versus how much is returned in federal spending and aid.  Of course, the amount of money collected and spent by the federal government is related to many factors including, but not limited to: the salary levels of workers in high income states leading to higher federal government revenues through income taxes and other fees; the presence of higher levels of poverty leading to more federal spending on poverty programs and, of course, the presence of strong and influential senior elected officials in Congress steering resources back home to their own state (e.g., “pork barrel” projects and the inclusion of earmarks in agency allocations).

Federal Tax Burden and Expenditures by State—2015

Federal Tax Burden and Expenditures by State—2015

Table 2.1 Federal Tax Burden and Expenditures by State—2015

 

      People, themselves, are important resources; however, the structure of the institutions for which people work, as well as the working environment and location do more to shape the effectiveness of workers.  Individuals working in the Federal Bureau of Investigation, for instance, are often used to working in a particular agency setting with a unique organizational culture.  The culture of an agency impacts the disposition of individuals.  Professionalism is also an important element in intergovernmental relationships.  In terms of elected officials, professionalism is reflected in the level of knowledge, experience and personal and administrative staff support available.  Administrative personnel at different levels of government may vary in terms of their experience, level of education, salaries, and training; these are all quite important characteristics of public sector administrative professionalism.

      Finally, as the literature on sustainable communities suggests, the social and economic conditions under which a particular level of government or an agency of government operates has a significant impact on intergovernmental relationships.  When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers arrives in a locality intent on building a dam for flood control or power generation, the conditions under which state or local governments’ operate will have an impact upon relationships with the Army Corps of Engineers.

      While conditions cannot be made uniform across levels of government or jurisdictions, successful federalism requires that political and administrative entities engaged in intergovernmental work come to terms with these differences in working conditions in order to maintain effectiveness and professionalism.  Often, variations in these elements of difference become a source of strength in the intergovernmental enterprise as creative synergies are discovered and innovative solutions to difficult problems are crafted.  Alternatively, those intergovernmental relationships that ignore these differences or involve the choice of a mistrusting or intensely competitive relationship often produce intergovernmental failure.

 


Terms

Classical Liberalism
Communitarism
Confederal Systems
Reserved Powers and the 10th Amendment
Cooperative Federalism
Dual Federalism
Fiscal Federalism
Progressivism
Public Goods
Individualistic Political Culture
Moralistic Political Culture
Point Sources
Political Culture
Pork Barrel
Mandates
Organization Culture
Traditionalistic Political Culture

 

Discussion Questions

1. Why was federalism adopted in the United States? Are the reasons leading to its adoption still relevant in the twenty-first century?

 

2. Based on your reading, what are the various models of federalism that developed over time, and what are some of the advantages and disadvantages of each type?

 

3. In what policy areas should states have more authority vis-à-vis the national government (e.g., social policy such as medical marijuana, abortion, death penalty, K-12 education standards)? In what policy areas should the national government have more authority vis-à-vis the state governments?

 

Notes

1. S. Krislov, “American Federalism as American Exceptionalism,” Publius: The Journal of Federalism 31(2001): 9-26.

A. Wildavsky, “A Bias toward Federalism: Confronting the Conventional Wisdom on the Delivery of Governmental Services,” Publius: The Journal of Federalism 6(1976):  95-120.

J. Yarbrough, “Federalism in the Foundation and Preservation of the American Republic,” Publius: The Journal of Federalism 6(1976): 43-60.

2. S. Schechter, “Federalism and Community in Historical Perspective,” Publius: The Journal of Federalism 5(1975): 1-14.

R.L. Watts, “Daniel J. Elazar: Comparative Federalism and Post-Statism,” Publius: The Journal of Federalism 30(2000): 155-168.

3. Ibid, Watts, p. 161.

4. J.F. Zimmerman, “National-State Relations: Cooperative Federalism in the Twentieth Century,” Publius: The Journal of Federalism 31(2001): 15-30.

5. J.P. Greene, “The Background to the Articles of Confederation,” Publius: The Journal of Federalism 12(4) (1982), 15-44.

Jack Rakove, “The Legacy of the Articles of Confederation,” Publius: The Journal of Federalism 12(1982): 45-66.

6. See S. Lakoff, “Between Either/or and More or Less: Sovereignty versus Autonomy under Federalism,” Publius: The Journal of Federalism 24(1994): 63-78.

7. J.R. Alexander, “State Sovereignty in the Federal System: Constitutional Protections under the Tenth and Eleventh Amendments,” Publius: The Journal of Federalism 26(1986): 1-15.

8. For a related discussion see:
Ostrom, “The Study of Federalism at Work,” Publius: The Journal of Federalism 4(1974): 1-17.

9. C. Tiebout, “A Pure Theory of Local Expenditures,” Journal of Political Economy 64(1956): 416-424.

10. D. Osborne and T. Gaebler, Reinventing Government (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1992).

11. D.B. Rosenthal and J.M. Hoefler, “Competing Approaches to the Study of American Federalism and Intergovernmental Relations,” Publius: The Journal of Federalism 19(1989): 1-23.

12. J. Bryce, The American Commonwealth (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1995).

13. V.C. Jackson, “State Sovereignty and the Eleventh Amendment in the U.S. Supreme Court: The 1988 Term,” Publius: The Journal of Federalism 22(1992): 39-54.

14. The national government tended to focus primary concern in exercising its powers enumerated in the Constitution. One important exception to this general point was the passage of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which provided for federal government support the development of grammar schools for the provision of basic education. The Northwest Ordinance established an important precedent for the national government; early on, the national government undertook to legislate for the provision of some “public goods” (societal benefits) that states could not fully consider.

15. In many ways, the history of dominant dual federalism reflects Hamilton’s conjecture in Federalist Paper #36 that in a federal system with weak central government powers, powerful state governments may work to advance their own agenda to the detriment of weaker or smaller states and, ultimately, led to the collapse of the federal system as originally instituted.

16. B. Allen, “Alexis de Tocqueville on the Covenanted Tradition of American Federal Democracy,” Publius: The Journal of Federalism 28(1998): 1-23.

17. The cooperative federalism model was helped along by major reforms at all three levels of government and within the branches of government, particularly at the national level. Campaigns gave voice to the reformers opinions in a wide audience, and elections produced progressively-minded political leaders. The news media and public interest groups advanced a progressive policy agenda, detailing the social and economic issues to be addressed at all levels of government.  The judiciary focused greater attention on the basic rights and liberties guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution, and began the evolutionary process of applying, through legal precedent, nationally-guaranteed rights to public policy making occurring at that state and local level.

18. D.B. Walker, “American Federalism from Johnson to Bush,” Publius: The Journal of Federalism 21(1991): 105-119.

19. P.E. Peterson, “The New Politics of Federalism,” Spectrum: The Journal of State Government 78(2005): 5-7.

20. See also K. Caruson, S. ManManus, M. Kohen and T. Watson, “Homeland Security Preparedness: The Rebirth of Regionalism,” Publius: The Journal of Federalism, 34(2005): 143-168.

21. Nathan (1975) discusses how top down federalism can, through the use of resource provision stipulations and mandates, impact the structural arrangements of state and local government. Structural change may have a more lasting and consequential impact on government than simple resource provision that does not require structural changes.
Richard P. Nathan, “The New Federalism versus the Emerging New Structuralism,”  Publius: The Journal of Federalism 5(1975): 111-129.

22. R. Barrales, “Federalism in the Bush Administration,” Spectrum: The Journal of State Government 74(2001): 5-6.

D.C. Menzel, “The Katrina Aftermath: A Failure of Federalism or Leadership?” Public Administration Review 66(2006): 808-812.

23. C. Rothfeld, “Federalism in a Conservative Supreme Court,” Publius: The Journal of Federalism 22(1992): 21-31.

24. D.B. Rosenthal and J.M. Hoefler, “Competing Approaches to the Study of American Federalism and Intergovernmental Relations,” Publius: The Journal of Federalism 19(1989): 1-23.

25. Ibid, p. 7.

26. P.N. Glendening and Mavis M. Reeves, Pragmatic Federalism (Pacific Palisades, CA: Palisades Publishers, 1984).

See also: P.N. Glendening, “Pragmatic Federalism and State-Federal Partnerships,” Spectrum: The Journal of State Government 74(2001): 6-8.

27. See Osborne and Gaebler, 1992, op. cit. (see reference 10).

28. D.J. Elazar, Federalism: A View from the States (New York: Crowell, 1966).

29. J.J. Montjoy, “National Center for Interstate Compacts: A New Initiative,” Spectrum: The Journal of State Government 77(2004): 8-11.

J.F. Zimmerman, “Trends in Interstate Relations,” Spectrum: The Journal of State Government 77(2004): 5-11.

D.M. Sprague, “Priority Focus for 2005:  Interstate Cooperation,” Spectrum: The Journal of State Government 77(2004): 3.

30. R.L. Cole and D.A. Taebel, “The New Federalism: Promises, Programs, and Performance,” Publius: The Journal of Federalism 16(1986): 3-10.

T. Conlan, “From Cooperatives to Opportunistic Federalism: Reflections on the Half-Century Anniversary of the Commission on Intergovernmental Relations,” Public Administration Review 66(2006): 663-676.

P. Eisinger, “Imperfect Federalism: The Intergovernmental Partnership for Homeland Security,” Public Administration Review 66(2006): 537-545.

J. Kincaid, “The Crisis in Fiscal Federalism,” Spectrum: The Journal of State Government 76(2003): 5-9.

31. M. Filippov, P. Ordeshook, and O. Shvetsova. Designing Federalism: A Theory of Self-Sustainable Federal Institutions (Cambridge: Cambridge Press, 2004).

P. Hobson, and F. St. Hilaire, Reforming Federal-Provincial Fiscal Arrangements: Toward Sustainable Federalism (Montreal: The Institute for Research on Public Policy, 1993) .

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State and Local Government and Politics: Prospects for Sustainability (2nd Ed.) by Christopher A. Simon, Brent S. Steel & Nicholas P. Lovrich is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.