The Federalism Project

Constitutional Reform and Governance in the U.S. (& Around the World)

US Federalism

The U.S. Federal System of Governance

What defines the U.S. political system of governance (much like its economic system) is competition.  Everything about the U.S. system of governance, from its bicameral legislature, to the indirect election of the President (by the Electoral College), to the jurisdictional sovereignty of the States, is designed to create competing spheres of jurisdiction, control, and supervision.

The framers feared the concentration of all government powers under one person (like the King of England that they rebelled against), so they designed a system of governance that requires both competition and mistrust among the constitutional actors involved.  In their mind, it was better for the government to do nothing then do something damaging that could not be undone.

When completion works properly (like in the case of the market) then the U.S. system of governance is at its best.  Present-day observes of political gridlock in Washington might find this statement inaccurate.  However, what most people forget is that the vision of the framers of the U.S. constitution has been twisted over time.

Most of the significant “checks and balances” of the U.S. constitution have been watered down.  The bicameral legislature which was supposed to represent the people and the State governments, no longer does (since Senators are also elected by the people and no longer appointed by State governments).  The most significantly diluted are the powers of the States to run most of their internal affairs.

Overall, the cornerstone of U.S. federalism is the horizontal and vertical separation of powers.  First, there is the complete separation of powers between the three branches at the national level, and the overlapping checks and balances.  Then, there is the division of powers and responsibilities between the national government and the States (sub-national governments).

Horizontal Separation of Powers

The great innovation of the U.S. constitution has to do with the separation of powers between the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial branches.  Unlike most parliamentary systems of governance, in the U.S. the Legislature is separate from the Executive (President) and the government administration.  In effect, the U.S. constitution states that a person cannot hold office in multiple branches of the government.  Therefore, a member of Congress cannot be a member of the Cabinet, and so on.

This innovation introduced an element of competition between the Legislative and the Executive branch, and it allowed for the Judiciary to develop (over a long time) a strong independent voice.

Bicameral Legislature

All legislative powers in the U.S. rest with Congress, which is made up of two legislative bodies: the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate.  Although the House and the Senate represent different constituencies, and have some different functions, the underlying premise is that every legislature that is passed by one chamber must also be approved by the other chamber… unchanged.

This combination of two legislative chambers representing different constituents but having to approve every legislature as equals safeguards the nation from any abuse of power and produces sensible moderate legislative compromises.

Another function for which the U.S. Congress is infamous for is its oversight responsibility.  The U.S. Legislature, both the House and the Senate, through the many Congressional Committees and Sub-Committees, take their responsibility to ‘question and investigate’ the executive branch very seriously.

Vertical Separation of Powers

On the other hand, because the United States was formed from the bottom up as a revolution of semi-autonomous colonies (states), they retained a great deal of power and responsibility to manage their internal affairs.  Of course, over time, in the constant struggle for political control between the four main center of power under the U.S. constitution (the President, Congress, the Supreme Court, and the States), the States have been the ones which lost part of their powers and responsibilities.

Non-the-less, States remain absolutely invaluable to the U.S. system of governance, because due to their much smaller size they can pursue policies and initiatives that are two risky or too expensive for the federal government.  The ‘laboratories of democracy’ as they have come to be known, States have been on the avant-guard of policy development, be it for economic or social issues.

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