Some Wisdom on Federal-State Relations

From time to time federalism becomes the topic du jour in American politics. Richard Nixon advocated a New Federalism in the 1970s, Ronald Reagan crafted another New Federalism in the 1980s and Congressional Republicans advocated for a Devolution Revolution in the 1990s. Our current political environment seems to have ushered in another of these “federalism moments”. The Tea Parties are invoking federalism and potential Republican presidential candidates are willing to follow along (Gingrich, Pawlenty, PerryRomney). Governors and state legislatures are pushing back against provisions of the Affordable Health Care Act, passing state sovereignty measures and nullification amendments,  examining ways to circumvent federal regulation through interstate compacts, and rejecting federal funds.

It is apparent that we are in the midst of our once-a-decade discussion of the virtues and drawbacks of federalism. I’d like to contribute to this debate by posting some wisdom from Morton Grodzins’ classic work on federalism The American System: A New View of Government in the United States (1966):

“The greatest complications arise when attempting to determine the locus of decision-making power. For example, it cannot be assumed that members of the national legislature or of the national executive speak only in the ‘nation’s view’ while state and local offices represent only parochial non-national views. In fact the non-national view is frequently supported by national officials, acting under a variety of influences. A analogous problem is the way in which special interest groups – date growers or electric train manufacturers, for example – will identify themselves as representing the local or state interest when the burden of their position is one of avoiding national regulation. Under such circumstances, can it be said that the state, and localities, are actually represented in the decisional process by the date growers? Even when states and localities are speaking for themselves, it is often not easy to determine whether their views are distinct from the national view. This problem is exacerbated by the universal tendency of all Americans to legitimate their actions in terms of the national interest.” (p.11)

The originator of the idea of marble cake federalism shows us that American federalism is a much more complex concept than just the interests of states versus the federal government or centralization versus decentralization. Rather it is based on a complex interplay of different governments working in tandom to solve the problems of the American people. As the dominant member of the American partnership, Washington often imposes its will on the states. However, the goal of any reform should be to realign the intergovernmental system in a way that is fair to all levels of government rather than trying to return to a dual federalism that never existed.


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