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An Introduction to the Evolution of American Federalism

Updated August 1, 2022
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An Introduction to the Evolution of American Federalism essay

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The history of federalism in the United States is complex. At times, the balance of power between state and federal governments could best be described as dual federalism, wherein the rights of each level of government are clearly distinguished; at other junctures, cooperative federalism, which permits greater overlap between federal and state powers, better described the United States (Berry et al., 103). Such fluctuations in federalism may occur as a result of federal mandates, restraints, grants, or even Supreme Court cases. These abrupt shifts in federalism are exemplified by a comparison of the 1995 Unfunded Mandates Reform Act, which increased states’ rights, and the 2000 Bush v. Gore Supreme Court case, which gave power to the federal government.

On March 22, 1995, the 104th Congress signed the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act into law (Beth and Dilger 1). The legislation was prompted by a rapid increase in unfunded federal mandates, or federal statutes which required state governments to undertake certain projects without providing the necessary funding. For example, the Americans with Disabilities Act was a federal law that required the states to make buildings accessible to the handicapped but did not provide any money for the endeavor (“The Role of Federal Mandates” 1). Other unfunded mandates included some monetary grants to the states, but these finances were not sufficient to cover the entire cost of the mandated project (Beth and Dilger 39). A study conducted by the Clinton Administration’s National Performance Review concluded that 172 unfunded mandates had been enacted as of December 1992 (Beth and Dilger 40).

The Unfunded Mandates Reform Act sought to curb this rapid implementation of unfunded mandates (Beth and Dilger 2). Specifically, the legislation established a method for the Congressional Budget Office to estimate the cost of mandates to states and allowed Congress to reject unfunded mandates that cost more than a specified threshold (Beth and Dilger 2). The policy was a restraint on federal power and thus a major win for advocates of states’ rights (Beth and Dilger 1). After all, unfunded mandates put a major dent in states’ coffers, as they were forced to foot the bill for a series of expensive federal projects. Moreover, unfunded mandates also removed important rights which had historically been held by states. Due to unfunded mandates, states were “stripped of their powers to engage in economic regulation of airlines, bus, and trucking companies, to establish a compulsory retirement age for their employees … or to regulate bankruptcies” (Beth and Dilger 8). The Unfunded Mandates Reform Act was therefore a prime example of state governments gaining power – whereas it had previously been common for federal laws to dictate states’ policies and budget allocations, the decrease in unfunded mandates afforded state governments increased control over their projects and finances. This supported the theory of dual federalism, as the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act established a clear disapproval of federal policies which infringed upon states’ rights (Berry et al., 103).

Yet states’ rights were by no means inviolable for the federal government; five years after the states gained power via the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act, the Supreme Court reclaimed a great amount of power for the federal government via its decision in Bush v. Gore. The Bush v. Gore case concerned the election of 2000, whose results hinged on Florida (Toobin 10). Because Florida’s vote count was too close for electors to commit one way or the other, the Florida Supreme Court mandated a recount Toobin 10). However, the federal Supreme Court appropriated its power of discretionary review to overturn this decision on the grounds that Florida’s recount process violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, and that under Florida state law, the state had already missed the deadline to amend its recount procedure (Toobin 11). Had Florida been allowed to correct its vote counting process, it could have proceeded with a more fair recount which may well have resulted in the election of Al Gore.

The Supreme Court’s decision to interfere with this state recount, then, was a major decrease in states rights. Some legal scholars went so far as to say the case “dramatically [subverted] the federalist principles” (Goodman 4). Not only had the federal court impeded Florida’s election procedures, but it had done so using the justification that the state had misinterpreted its own laws. Because the Supreme Court ruled that Florida’s state laws established a deadline for vote counts, it effectively “second-[guessed] the Florida court on a question of state law, a [drastic] federal intrusion upon state autonomy” (Goodman 5). This is particularly notable given that Florida’s Supreme Court made no mention of this statute in its verdict that a recount was permissible, indicating the court’s belief that the law did not apply given the unusual circumstances of the Bush-Gore election (Goodman 5). Thus, the Supreme Court’s intrusion into Florida’s election results undermined the “well-established principle that a state supreme court is the final authority on the meaning of state law” (Goodman 5). In the Bush v. Gore case, the federal government acted in accordance with the theory of cooperative federalism, as it blurred the lines between state and federal courts’ powers (Berry et al., 104).

The balance of power between state and federal governments has thus been delicate. On the one hand, policies like the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act increased states’ rights by restricting the power of the federal government to set states’ policy and financial agendas. The Unfunded Mandates Reform Act was not alone in its promotion of state power; federal laws and court decisions throughout the 1990s tended to favor dual federalism, as evidenced by welfare-reform laws and Supreme Court cases like Printz v. United States which respected states’ rights (“Update: States’ Rights” 1). On the other hand, Supreme Court decisions like Bush v. Gore privileged the power of the federal government over the states; the ruling established the federal authority to interpret state law and to interfere with state election results. This case was part of the trend in the 2000s toward cooperative federalism, which continued with laws like the Patriot Act and the Affordable Care Act that eroded states’ rights (“Update: States’ Rights” 2). It is impossible, then, to regard the United States as a model of exclusively dual or cooperative federalism; rather, the system fluctuates between support for the states and support for the federal government.

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An Introduction to the Evolution of American Federalism. (2022, Aug 01). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/an-introduction-to-the-evolution-of-american-federalism/

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