State Powers

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The Evolution of Federal-State Relations

Dual Federalism

The relationship between national and state governments in policy making has evolved since the nation's founding. In the late 18th century, the functions or responsibilities of each level of government were quite distinct. State governments were responsible for education and transportation policies, for example. The national government limited itself to larger issues such as national defense and international trade. Little integration of the two levels of government existed, a state of affairs often referred to as dual federalism. This persisted throughout the 19th century, in part because the federal government's activities remained fairly limited.

Cooperative Federalism

In the 20th century, federal-state relations changed significantly, especially in response to the Great Depression. President Roosevelt's New Deal (an expansive economic recovery program) began to break down the barriers between national and state policy. Dual federalism evolved into cooperative federalism, as collaboration on policy making increased. Many large-scale federal programs begun in the 1960s and 1970s, another period of government growth, relied on such a model. The federal clean air and clean water programs, for example, involved a mix of national and state responsibilities, with the national government setting environmental protection standards and the states carrying out most implementation actions.

Block Grants

Much of the cooperation that occurred between the national and state governments was a result of additional monies being provided to the states through block grants and categorical grants. Block grants are transfers of federal dollars to the states where the states have substantial discretion in how to spend the money to meet their citizens' needs. Categorical grants also involved the transfer of federal dollars to the states, but the funding must be used for specific purposes. During the 1970s and 1980s critics of increasing federal power urged the states to retake some of their policy-making responsibilities. President Nixon's "new federalism" initiatives in the early 1970s were designed to move away from categorical grants and toward block grants to give the states more discretion in how they used the funds. States were grateful for the federal funds but also concerned about the expectations that such funding carried.


The devolution of policy to states continued under President Reagan. His conservative philosophy and political rhetoric gave a significant boost to the trend to restore greater authority to the states. Although many states welcomed this change, they also worried about the subsequent decrease in federal dollars. In addition, the national government had discovered a new way to enact popular policies without paying for them: it gave implementation responsibilities to the states. Federal policymakers received political credit for the new programs without spending federal tax dollars. These unfunded mandates - federal requirements placed upon the state governments without funds for implementation - added stress to the relationship between the national and state governments.

Unfunded Mandates

In 1995 Congress enacted the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act to limit future financial impacts on the states, but conflict over policy making in a federal system did not vanish. The legislation was not implemented very effectively; Congress continued to approve new mandates for which insufficient money was made available. Additionally, the act did not remove the extensive mandates for state action that were already in place. Continued conflict between the federal government and the states could be seen in 2001 over the No Child Left Behind program. Few questioned the goal of improving the quality of the nations' schools, but many had doubts about imposing federal standards in a policy area that has traditionally been a state responsibility.

Federal Power: Presidents and the Constitution (6:08)


State Variation in Policy Capacity

State Variation

The states differ in fundamental ways such as physical size, population, extent of industrialization, and affluence. Moreover, each state and region has a distinctive history and culture that shapes policy actions. What may work well and be acceptable to residents of Minnesota or Wisconsin might not be appropriate or feasible in Texas or Mississippi. There is nothing inherently negative about policy variation among the states.Throughout the nation's history Americans have celebrated the rich diversity of state cultures and policy preferences. However, when a state's policies are so different from others that its residents may be deprived of essential human needs or federally protected rights, the federal government is likely to intervene.

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Arguments Against More Decentralization

Policy performance varies from state to state, and citizens may suffer the consequences. For example, some states fail to fully test drinking water or to enforce clean air and clean water laws, even though they are violating federal laws (Rabe 2010). States with more money and greater expertise than others can design better programs and offer more services to their citizens. Business and industry interest groups may exert more influence at the state than at the national level because of the states' eagerness to attract businesses and jobs. Only the federal government has sufficient resources to support policy activities such as scientific research for environmental protection and health care. Many public programs, such as air and water pollution, cross state boundaries, suggesting that a higher level of government is needed to address them adequately.

Arguments For Increasing State Authority

Those who favor increasing state authority tend to believe that the states are capable of handling additional responsibilities and are better equipped than the federal government at defining their citizens' needs. For some, the states are the "new heroes" of American federalism, with greater capacity for policy innovation and closer ties to citizens than the national government.

Studies show that over the past several decades state legislatures and bureaucracies have become more skilled than they were before at dealing with policy issues (Hedge 1998). This comes from growth in professional staffs and expertise, including the ability to appraise policy needs and evaluate programs with greater accuracy. Depending on its economic conditions, a state could also act on public problems because it may have sufficient funds to do so, from transfer of federal dollars and state taxation (Bowman and Kearney 2005).

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Fred on Federalism (1:51)


Additional Resources

REFER: McGraw Hill Chapter



  • Kraft, Michael E. and Scott R. Furlong, 2010. Public Policy: Politics, Analysis, and Alternatives 3rd ed. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press.
  • Bowman, Ann O'M., and Richard C. Kearney. 2005. State and Local Governments. 6th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • Hedge, David M. 1998. Governance and the Changing American States. Boulder: Westview Press.
  • Pressman, Jeffrey L., and Aaron Wildavsky. 1979. Implementation. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Rabe, Barry G. 2010. "Racing to the Top, the Bottom, or the Middle of the Pack? The Evolving State Government Role in Environmental Protection." In Environmental Policy 7th ed. Edited by Norman J. Vig and Michael E. Kraft. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press.

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