Federalism at a Crossroads: States Must Do Their Part to Define Federalism and Shape the Future

By Pound, William T. | State Legislatures, June 2006 | Go to article overview

Federalism at a Crossroads: States Must Do Their Part to Define Federalism and Shape the Future


Pound, William T., State Legislatures


The U.S. federal system is the most vibrant and effective federal system in the world. It is always dynamic, always evolving.

In large part, the success of federalism is a result of the creativity and innovation of the states. Yet the federal balance today is placing enormous strain on state budgets as the national government enacts initiatives and tells the states to pay for them. From the No Child Left Behind Act, to Medicaid reform, clean air and water, the federal government is asking states to do more--and come up with the money to do it.

PHASES OF FEDERALISM

It wasn't always that way.

America began with a state-based federalism where the states wielded most of the power and initiated nearly all domestic policy. That began to change with the Civil War. It shifted even more with World War I, the Great Depression and World War II, and evolved into its second phase--a clearly Washington-dominated federalism where Congress and the administration became the principal players. Relative to the federal government, the states became weaker. In fact, an observer of federalism commented that by the late 1950s, the states had become mere administrative arms of the national government.

Washington, D.C.-dominated federalism began changing around 1980, however, when President Ronald Reagan took office. Responsibilities and authority became much more balanced between the states and the national government, with both playing significant roles. State governments, and particularly state legislatures, had modernized in the 1960s and 1970s--from professionalizing their staffs to enhancing their research, bill drafting and budget capabilities. It wasn't very long before every legislature had its own fiscal staff to strengthen its role in the state budget process. Legislatures also created the National Conference of State Legislatures in the mid 1970s to make the states more active players on the national scene.

FISCAL FEDERALISM

One of the distinctive features of U.S. federalism is that it is the only major federal system in the world in which the national government doesn't systematically share revenues with state government. In the past, the federal government shared revenues with the states to overcome regional disparities. But that doesn't happen in a single program today. Revenue sharing occurs to some extent through Medicaid and in a few formula programs, but the funds are tied to a specific outcome. It's not general purpose aid.

Just as general purpose aid has all but disappeared, there also has been a decline in federal support for state and local programs. Three significant changes have occurred:

* More federal money goes to individuals today than to state or local governments. Federal money is targeted to entitlement programs much more than before, with Medicaid being the primary example.

* Federal assistance to the states requires a significant match when compared to the 1950s to the end of the 1980s or early 1990s. For example, Medicaid is almost an equal split, although the very poorest of states can provide as little as a 20 percent contribution. And the highway program has a rough 80/20 to 75/25 split, with a 20 percent match being the general standard to receive federal money. But perhaps even more important than the size of the match is that federal action drives state decisions and determines what the states have to do with those programs.

* Programmatic responsibilities have shifted to state and local governments. In this period of balanced federalism, the federal government has devolved responsibilities to the states. The Medicaid program that began at the federal level has become a shared program and is the second largest component of state budgets. It's also the fastest growing one.

Local government responsibilities in environment, health care and education have been transferred to the states, too. It wasn't very many years ago when the states had very little responsibility over air and water quality. …

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