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There is a widely held view in the USA, especially on the right of the political spectrum, that liberty is best protected by policies being made in local communities with the policy-makers being held locally accountable and that, conversely, the greatest threat to freedom was/is a powerful central government relative to state governments. Thus federalism is seen as the key constitutional device to protect liberty and any dilution of federalism is seen as undermining freedom. However, other Americans argue that the consistent application of the Bill of Rights can only be done/monitored by the national government and point out that, under the banner of ‘States Rights’, local communities have been guilty of fostering tyranny of the majority – especially the white communities in the South.


Federalism is the separation of the structure of government into two more or less autonomous layers, and the powers of each are entrenched in the constitution. The term ‘federalism’ is not mentioned in the constitution, but the role of the states in US government is established in the constitution principally by: equal representation of each state in the Senate; the Electoral College for electing the president; state boundaries cannot be changed without states’ consent; the constitution can only be amended with the consent of ¾ of the state legislatures; the tenth amendment reserves to the states all those powers not explicitly delegated to the central government. The framers of the constitution wished to establish a political system which protected the role of the states, as the founders of the new country, and to create a central government strong enough to pull the country together into a functioning whole. Thus, both were granted significant powers within a federal system.



Throughout this period, as in many others in US history, the relationship between the federal government and the states has been controversial because of clashes over the sharing of power between the federal government and the states, and the policies both are pursuing.

This can lead to apparently contradictory positions, e.g. Republicans supporting DOMA, at odds with their usual support for states’ rights.
Under both the Bush and Obama administrations there was some assertion of federal government authority
¥ federal government spending rose by about a third through the course of the Bush administration and the federal government expanded its reach through policies such as ‘No Child Left Behind’, and the Medicare prescription drug benefit
¥ in addition, the emergencies of 9/11, the banking crash and the recession required federal response: 9/11 - increase in defence spending, creation of Department of Homeland Security; the banking crash and recession - TARP and bank bailout legislation in autumn 2008
¥ The GOP-controlled Congress was also willing to override states’ rights to pursue policy goals, e.g. the Teri Schiavo case

¥ marijuana became a source of controversy as initially the Obama administration sought to enforce federal laws over state laws, but then adopted a more emollient approach
¥ state laws on immigration - the administration has taken legal action against Arizona’s SB 1070 ‘show me your papers’ law
¥ the Affordable Care Act required states to set up health insurance exchanges and the federal government intervened to run them itself when some states refused; the SC ruled in Sebelius that the federal government could not force the states to expand Medicaid
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