The Intergovernmental Setting of State-Local Relations
David C. Nice
State-local relations in the United States take place within our federal system. Although federalism has been defined in many ways over the years, for present purposes federalism is a system of government that includes a national government and one or more levels of subnational governments (states, cantons, local governments) and that allows each level to make some significant decisions independently of the other(s). Independence is not absolute; each level may influence the others in various ways. Nonetheless, a federal system enables each level to make some decisions without the approval (formal or informal) of the other level (see Macmahon 1972: 3; Riker 1964: 5; Wheare 1964: chapter 1).
Federalism is an intermediate type of political system. In a unitary system, all decisionmaking power belongs to the national government, and subnational governments do not exist or serve only to implement policies established by the national government. 1 The United Kingdom is a relatively unitary system. At the other extreme, no national government exists and the "subunits" are independent countries. Federalism falls between the two extremes.
Federal systems distribute power and responsibilities in many ways, from systems in which the national government is relatively weak and the subunits are dominant, systems that are often called confederations, to systems placing most of the authority in the national government and leaving the subunits with a relatively minor role. The allocation of powers and duties in a system can change, as it has in the United States, and can vary from one program to another. Responsibilities can be divided,