Federalism—the notion that states and the federal government fulfill different but complementary roles and therefore exercise different but complementary powers—is central to the governing framework established by the Founders. As Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy observed in 1995, “Federalism was our Nation’s own discovery. The Framers split the atom of sovereignty. It was the genius of their idea that our citizens would have two political capacities, one state and one federal, each protected from incursion by the other.” For example, the Constitution gave the federal government the power to coin money, conduct war, regulate foreign and interstate commerce, and levy taxes, while the powers reserved to the states extended to “all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement and prosperity of the State.”
The apportionment of roles and authority has been a consistent source of debate and tension as the federal–state relationship has evolved over time.
Overall, federalism has served the United States well for more than two hundred years and the basic idea that some functions and powers are appropriately the domain of the federal government, while other functions and powers should be left to the states, retains broad popular and political support. But the apportionment of roles and authority among different levels of government has also been a consistent source of debate and tension as the federal-state relationship has evolved over time.
In particular, the steady expansion of federal power into new areas of social, economic, educational, technological, and environmental policy over recent decades has prompted growing concern about a deepening and ultimately corrosive imbalance in the federalist system envisioned by our Founders and enshrined in our Constitution.
Restoring a healthy working relationship between the federal government and the states has been a core concern of the Governors’ Council since it first convened in 2011 in an effort to bring pragmatic state-based perspectives to national issues. This short paper provides a historical context for understanding and addressing the current imbalance in federal–state relations and offers several targeted recommendations aimed at advancing a return to the more cooperative model of federalism that guided America’s response to the Great Depression in the 1930s. The recommendations reflect our view that greater consideration of the impact of federal laws and regulations on state processes and policies, together with more extensive consultation between state and federal decision-makers, is critical to restoring effective governance at all levels and to rebuilding public confidence in the enduring strength of America’s federalist system.
Together, these recommendations aim to restore balance in the federal–state relationship and to promote a return to so-called cooperative federalism, in which both levels of government share responsibility and power in certain areas and work together to advance policies and programs that benefit the American people and protect their interests.