The government of the United States is constantly changing. From the moment the country was born until today, there have been many eras and concepts that have transpired over the years. The United States federal government and state and local governments have gone through periods for transition from 1781 to the present day in which their relationships where continuously changing.
In order to understand the different eras of U.S. governmental history, one must first understand the history of the relationships between the federal government and state and local governments. The Constitution of the U.S. establishes a direct link between state governments and Congress. It gives Congress specific powers like declaring war and creating armies. The U.S. Constitution also bars states from performing acts that would undermine the federal government; some of those acts include making treaties, coining money, and making war. State governments can also create/destroy local governments. Federal, state, and local governments all interact with one another.
As each level of government interacts with the other(s), there are clear distinctions in the levels of interaction that take place. The different levels of government in the United States have something called formal interaction. There are four types of formal interaction: national to state, state to national, nation equals state (concurrent powers), and state to local.
The first form of interaction is national to state. National to state interaction gives the federal government most of the power over the land. The federal government has the power to have an army. It ensures a republican form of government; this means that when a state is admitted to the union, the federal government controls how the state is created (in the form of laws). This form of interaction also has something known as the Supremacy Clause; this makes the Constitution the supreme law of the land. The power of laws from highest to lowest is as follows: U.S. Constitution, federal law, state constitutions, state laws, and local ordinances.
On the reverse side of national to state interaction is state to national interaction. In this form of interaction, the states determine elections and procedures. States are represented in the national government in the Senate; they are also represented in the Electoral College. States must approve changes that are made to the U.S. Constitution.
The national government and state governments do not always battle for power in national to state and state to national interaction. When the national government and state governments share power, it is know as concurrent powers. Both the federal and state governments have the power to tax, borrow money, establish courts, make/enforce laws, and the power of eminent domain.
A step down from national and state interaction is state to local interaction. State and local interaction is not as complex as national and state interaction. This type of interaction involves funding. States have the ability to create and destroy local governments if they so choose. When a state creates or destroys a local government it also approves or removes power from that local government.
The interaction process of the different levels of government is based on the idea of federalism. Federalism comes from the idea that there are two levels of government that coexist within a nation. The United States has gone through various eras of federalism, which include dual federalism, cooperative federalism, picket-fence federalism, and conflicted federalism. Each level has distinctive features and can be seen in different time frames of United States history.
The earliest system of federalism that can be seen in U.S. history is the concept of dual federalism. Dual federalism can be seen from about 1789 to 1932 in U.S. history. Under this concept, the state governments have the most power, while the federal government has a limited to small amount of power. State governments have exclusive rights to “police powers” in policy areas. Even though it has a small to limited amount of power under this system, the national government is said to have grown; examples of this can be seen as the Civil War progresses and Civil War amendments are passed. The national government also moves from a passive to positive regulator of the economy. The amount of federal grants-in-aid also grows during this time period.
As dual federalism made its way out in 1932, the cooperative era of federalism crept in. This era was created in response to the Great Depression with Frank D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. The national government used “interstate commerce” to put federal controls on the states and the economy. The economy is controlled by the federal government through the Commerce Clause and the federal budget. Intergovernmental grants-in-aid are also developed during this time period. These types of grants-in-aid allow the federal government to disperse federal money to the states for specific programs, and some strings are attached to the money states receive; this was used to regulate the states by saying that if they did not follow the guideline the federal government had given with the money, then the money could be taken away from the states.
The cooperative era runs until 1960, when picket-fence federalism replaces it. Picket-fence federalism brings about the idea of categorical grants-in-aid. Powers are balanced between federal, state, and local governments; each level of government pulls an equal amount of weight on programs. Cross-cutting sanctions also emerge in this era. The sanctions said that failure to comply in one program would result in the cut in funding of another program. The federal bureaucracy grows again with Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society”. Local governments are able to now bypass the states and receive funding directly from the federal government. The Supreme Court expands national government’s power over the states.
The federal government continued to expand with cooperative federalism until 1981 when President Reagan took office. Reagan gave birth to the era of federalism called conflicted federalism. This era continues up to present day. Reagan began to attack the federal government; he says that the government is the problem and many people distrust it. Reagan wanted to undo what FDR and LBJ had done in previous years. He also called for block grants and “regulatory relief”. He wanted the strings that came with grants-in-aid to be cut.
As its government progressed through many changes over the course of history, the government of the United States is remains based on a federal system in which power is divided among national, state, and local governments. The federal system acknowledges that the U.S. is a large and diverse nation, and by having state and local governments that diversity can be represented. The government of the United States will always be changing; and as it does change the manner in which it is governed will vary slightly with the birth of new ideas.