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What is Federalism? August 21, 2011

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Politics.
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What is Federalism?  It is, quite simply, a system of government that involves shared and divided power between a governing central authority and constituent political units — in this case, individual states.  In other words, the Federalist system requires that some defined, limited powers be delegated to the central government while the rest be delegated to the states.  This concept was central to our nation’s founding during the Federal Convention of 1787, and is just as crucial today, as a critical mass of our fellow citizens have forgotten this key concept, thus leading to our country’s existential crisis.

In the beginning, America’s government on a national level consisted only of the Congress, then a differently-composed body from the Congress that became part of the federal government that was later to be designed.  From 1777 through 1788, the guiding document for the Congress was the Articles of Confederation, whose very title shows that America was a confederacy at that time, not a federal republic.  But the Articles failed because they were too weak.  The 13 states that declared independence from Great Britain had to be brought together very quickly in order to keep an army in the field and to keep it fed and clothed.  At this they almost merited a failing grade, since General George Washington constantly found his army to be under-fed, his soldiers’ payments chronically late, and horribly clothed.

After the war, even bigger problems arose, since the Articles of Confederation brought the states together too loosely, particularly when it came to settling states’ debts or having a stable currency, to say nothing of lack of uniform commercial regulation from state to state.  It therefore comes as no wonder that the “several states” were in economic chaos by the 1780s, some 150 years before the Great Depression of the 1930s.  Enough key people realized the problems with the Articles had to be corrected, first at Annapolis, Md., in 1786, and a year later at Philadelphia in 1787.

One myth that pervades some people on the right side of the political spectrum is that the Framers convened in Philadelphia in 1787 to cut government down and make it weaker.  The opposite is actually true:  they got together in that city and year to strengthen government.  That said, it would rankle those on the other side of the political spectrum that they did not strengthen it for the sake of amassing more power or control for themselves, let alone create a modern European-style welfare state, but rather, they saw it was a means of creating a more stable system that would encourage a stronger economy.  A stronger government meant the ability to regulate interstate commerce and have the only power to coin money — two powers absent from the previous government (Reference Article I, Section 8).  Basically, the Constitution — pre-1791, at least — was originally meant to be a blueprint that would allow for more people to secure for themselves the blessings of liberty by being able to earn their own money more easily than before.

Through much rigorous debate during the Federal Convention of 1787, a federal system of government was decided upon, where there would be a government at the highest level with a relatively few defined powers, and the broader powers would be deferred to the “several states.”

One example of shared power is, alas, no more.  The original way in which the new Congress was composed was one of the most sterling examples of Federalism, and how power separated was indeed power checked.  The method of people directly electing their representatives in the lower chamber has been in place since 1788.  But the way United States Senators were elected was quite different.  The original method of their appointment was election via state legislatures.  Such election was predicated on the idea that once elected, the members of the Senate would respect state sovereignty, and not allow for the federal government to usurp power from the states.  The 17th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1913, made it so that senators were elected to Congress directly by the individual voters instead of the state legislators.  Effectively, this turned Senators into “supercongressmen,” and were no longer operating under any constraints to respect state sovereignty with their pieces of legislation, unless the voters stipulated such, yet they never did until a critical mass of voters in some states have made that a priorty in very recent years.  An archived article by Bruce Bartlett goes further into this important issue.

Federalism is not without its occasional peculiarities, to be sure.  To ensure that states would be given equal representation on one hand and given proportional representation on another, the Congressional make-up as we know was fashioned whereby the lower chamber would satisfy the latter concern, and the upper chamber of Congress (the Senate) would satisfy the former.  Article I is very explicit in that each state, no matter how big or small, shall be represented in the upper chamber by two senators; no more, no less.  Today, the average Congressional district represents a little over 700,000 people, yet the state of Wyoming, just slightly over half a million in population, has two senators.

True, some delegates initially did call for a national government, not a federal government, but after the requisite debate, that particular proposal for overhauling the central authority of government in the U.S. was quickly rejected.  Much debate and compromise took place before it was agreed upon by the majority of delegates that powers between a central government and state governments should be shared.  Such a mutual conclusion was the happy median between those who wanted a stronger central authority and those who wanted to preserve more vestiges of the older confederacy.

When the Federal Convention concluded on Sept. 17, 1787, two opposing camps sprang up, practically overnight — the Federalists (those in favor of the Constitution’s ratification) and the Anti-Federalists (those who opposed the Constitution’s ratification on the grounds that it gave too much power to the central government).  A large majority of states had to ratify the document to make it the supreme law of the land (effectively, this meant nine states out of 12, since Rhode Island did not send any delegates at all to the convention).

Many prominent patriots such as George Mason, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and Samuel Adams were Anti-Federalists, fearing that their efforts to secure independence would come to naught if the central government were delegated such a degree of power.  The Anti-Federalists were understandably concerned that without additional built-in checks on Congressional power, their worst fears of a central government amassing more and more power at the expense of everyone’s liberty would come to pass.  The solution proposed by prominent Federalists such as James Madison — the acknowledged “father” of the Constitution and one of its key authors — was to add a Bill of Rights to the Constitution to ensure that rapacious politicians would be prohibited from passing laws that would infringe on our God-given liberties.  The Bill of Rights, of course, consists of the first 10 amendments to the Constititution, and was ratified in December of 1791, during George Washington’s first term as president.  In it, one particular amendment — the Tenth — stands out as an enduring testament to the principle of Federalism and to the importance of shared powers and the respect of state sovereignty.  It simply reads:

“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

Translation, for those of you who went to public school (or graduated from IU):  If it doesn’t specifically say that the central government has the power to do something, then the central government lacks the power to do that one thing, and if that one thing is to be done, it is up to the states (or even the counties) to take care if it in their own way.

The Tenth Amendment reminds us of something implicit though crucial to Federalism.  Given that it is predicated on shared powers between the central government and the states, it compels its citizens to prioritize as to what government can effectively do nationally vs. locally.  Since one of the most basic jobs of government is to protect its citizens from theft and violence, that job on a state and county level amounts to “law and order,” while on the national level, it means providing for the national defense.  When it comes to “establish Post Offices and Post Roads” as is enumerated in Article I, Section 8, that means that it’s quite alright for the federal government to build national roads (interstates, anyone?) and post offices, but the states can build their own roads on their own dime, too.

If ever We the People are to solve America’s current existential crisis of whether we are to perpetuate America as we know it, or to degenerate into another bloated welfare state like western Europe, the former cannot be achieved without the explicit acknowledgement of what Federalism is and why our Founding Fathers intended for the central government to remain strong enough to provide economic and military stability on a national level, but to leave the rest of the minutiae to the states.  It worked before, and shall work again.  As we are witnessing today, there can be no substitute.

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