If you’ve turned on the news, you’ve no doubt noticed that today’s social climate is very politically charged. Not only is it in America’s dealings with foreign countries but in America itself. A lot of political terms keep getting thrown around but you may not understand one of them that you may hear a lot, Federalism. A lot of people may not understand what Federalism is. What are the features of Federalism, and what makes the US a federalist country?
Federalism is a form of government characterized by some key features. The first is a multi-level government system. Federalism is also characterized by a written Constitution, judicial supremacy, and bicameral legislation. There are many different forms of Federalism around the world but all have the same four key features.
Growing up we’ve always believed and been told that we live in a democracy. However, that is not the case. Don’t worry if this confuses you, it does many people and that is completely understandable. The United States is actually a mix of Government types: Democratic, Republic, and Federalist. Democratic basically means we vote. Republic means we have representation. Federalism is where the federal government comes from but what exactly is it?
What is Federalism?
Federalism is a form of government that requires two distinct levels of government. In the US, this is seen in the state government in the federal government. Each level has certain responsibilities.
In the US, States chose to give certain responsibilities to the federal government in regards to some law-making and regulation and defense. However, they also kept a great deal of responsibilities to be handled locally within the state. This allows each state to have autonomy while still being part of the federation as a whole and benefitting from the centralized resources the Federal government can provide.
It is tantamount to villages historically banding together for survival and resource sharing, putting their trust into one set of people to be the custodian of those resources and fairly dispense them. That custodian then being allowed to take the responsibility of making rules that the other villages must follow to have access to the resources. A very simplified view yes, but in its very basic form, this is what a Federalist government. A centralized repository of resources and administration.
1) Multilevel government
People in the US are no strangers to multiple levels of government. They’re used to a State government and a Federal government. This is one of the most important features in Federalism.
A major component of Federalism is the delegation of a portion of each state’s responsibility to a centralized government or federal government. Whether they’re called a state, region, Providence, or territory, they have chosen to give a portion of their responsibilities to the federal government, making them a part of a federation of States. This means multiple states or territories under one central government.
While these states have given a portion of their authority to the Federal government, they retain independent autonomy able to make laws, and have administrative authority over their citizens, separate from the responsibilities that they’ve given to the federal government. In return for handing the Federal Government a portion of their responsibilities, each state expects to be able to have access to the centralized government’s resources, assistance and defense capabilities. All of which have been collected from each of the States in the federation.
Each state also has a form of federalist government, since they too take some responsibility from local governments, your cities, and counties, collect resources and then distribute those resources as needed.
2) Written Constitution
You cannot have multiple levels of government without also having a written Constitution. This Constitution is what dictates which responsibilities belong to a federal government and which responsibilities belong to the state government. Without this very important document, there is nothing to stop States from taking back all of their authority or the federal government seizing all of the States’ authority.
The United States Constitution, written in 1787, clearly defines the purposes of the Federal Government in the Preamble.
“Establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”
This is what the federal government is taxed with. This is their job. States that are part of the Union, or federation, gave up portions of their authority to ensure that the federal government would be looking out for these interests.
To ensure that the federal government did its job, the Constitution also lays out exactly how they are supposed to do that. The Constitution also stipulates the means that keep the centralized government in check and looking out for the best interests of the people. By separating the federal government into the 3 branches, The Constitution sought to keep any one section of the federal government from having too much power. A system of checks and balances.
3) Judicial Supremacy
There is only one thing that keeps a federalist government from imploding on itself. The idea is that no one, not even the federal government, is above the law. The law, as it pertains to the federal government, is the Constitution.
The interpretation of our laws, as set forth by the Constitution, falls on the Supreme Court of the United States. They, as a whole, are the people who tell the federal government what the laws are as stated in the Constitution so that they cannot be interpreted to suit individual needs. Without this oversight, it would be possible for members of the Federal Government to change the laws or interpret the Constitution to their benefit, while doing the opposite for another group of people.
As it stands, by the law of the Constitution, the Constitution itself can not be changed unless an Amendment is passed, which would take both houses of Congress, and Ratification of all States in the Federation, thus keeping the Federal government from easily seizing power.
Aside from the Constitution, federal, state, and local laws exist to keep chaos from raining over society. In order for these laws to work, they must apply to everyone and not just some people. This includes those who elected to work in the Federal Government. Under Judiciary Supremacy they are also held to the same laws of the land like every other citizen. This is part of the backbone of a federalist government.
Judicial supremacy, ensuring that all laws are the same for all people.
4) Bicameral Legislation
Bicameral legislature refers to the sectioning of the law-making branch of the federal government into two, parallel parts. In the US, this is the Senate and the House of Representatives which make up Congress.
The principles behind this structure laid out in the Constitution, are that each State should have equal representation, 2 Senators per State, but that the population should be represented as well, the number of Representatives in the House. In this manner, all stakeholders in government are represented, and no one branch of Congress can pass a law without the other also passing it. Checks and Balances.
With this form of Congress, Federalism ensures that those whom they are supposed to govern have a say in how that takes place. This again keeps the Federal centralized government from degrading into a dictatorship or oligarchy. Though each part of Congress may have certain, separate responsibilities, they must work together to govern.
If you have ever listened to news about a law that one part of Congress was trying to pass, but that the other disagreed on, you would think that there was no way they get anything done. Yes, it is frustrating and confusing, but it actually proves that the system is working. Each section is arguing and looking out for the interests of those they represent, the citizens for the House and the States for the Senate. When they’ve reached a compromise, and a bill is passed, you believe that they have gotten the best outcome they can for those they’re fighting for.
Features of Federalism – In Conclusion
For over 200 years the United States has operated under some form of Federalist government. Whether you’ve agreed with it or not, it has worked well. There have been ups and there have been downs. There have been changes. Things have grown and things are much different than they were when the Constitution was written. To be sure, the Founding Fathers would be shocked to see what their United States has become today. For good or ill, the Country has certainly surpassed anything that they could have imagined.
The principles that the Constitution was written under, the federalist principles, still stand through today. Though they may not always be easy to see, they are there and they’re what keeps our government running today. The backbone of the United States, though always changing and flexing, has continued to stay fundamentally true to its roots. Given the changing world around us, it has not always been easier, and my yet still be harder.
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