What is federalism? It is important to keep in mind that a “federal” government is ruled by a constitution. There is no separation of powers among the various branches of government in any true federal republic. Rather, every branch of government acts together for the benefit of the nation as a whole, and nothing can be done without respect to the constitution of the Republic. Any action inconsistent with the U.S. Constitution, or infringement of individual rights is criminal.
Federalism is a mixture or balanced combination of various types of governmental systems. It is often confused with separation of powers, or the checks and balances characteristic of some constitutional systems. Federalism is a complex interplay of political institutions with national-level constraints on the power of local government. The distinguishing feature, first embodied in the Constitution of America, is a constitutional relationship between a national government and various state governments over a vast area of influence. This constitutional relationship provides an exception to the general rule that a national government can only act in accordance with the decisions of state governments.
The reason why interstate relations are so delicate is because a powerful national government acting in violation of the local governments can easily control or manipulate the economic or social structure of the society, imposing its own policies in the form of taxation or regulation. Conversely, the people’s representatives, known as state legislators, can assert their sovereign power to control the national government by influencing the national legislature. But the ultimate check on the national government’s power is found in the Constitution itself. The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly held that Congress may exercise both regulatory and non-regulatory powers over the nation. A major reason for the Court’s ruling is that Congress possesses the power inherent in our representative system to control what is considered to be state-kings, or what is called powers of attorney.
So, what is federalism anyway? The answer is: it is the combination of all three of those characteristics mentioned above. A major part of this mixture is the fact that it is the product of centuries of accumulated tradition and experience, and what the country has come to know as our national character. For example, some analysts believe that our system of checks and balances, which have evolved over time, gives state and local governments too much power. Yet it is the checks and balances system that has been used in American government from the very beginning, so this criticism doesn’t hold any water.
Another significant feature of what is federalism is that it provides an environment where different levels of government can interact in order to meet the unique challenges that are unique to the American polity. In fact, the existence of three separate levels in our system of government – federal, state, and local-leads to a fundamental principle of our political system that has been recognized over time. It is the concept that politics can exist at the local level and should be encouraged. The checks and balances built into our system of checks and balances provide a structure that ensures that the political process remains a meaningful and effective way of picking the people who will represent us on a personal level as well as at the national level.
One other feature of what is federalism that should be noted is that it is actually the product of evolution, rather than evolution in its own right. As our country has evolved over time, it has been wise to look to experience and common sense to guide us in these matters. Our Constitution does not spell out what is federalism; rather, it describes what our government was and is, while giving us hints and clues as to how we might go about changing things for the better. The framers obviously knew what they were doing when they wrote our Constitution. Indeed, the Constitution itself is the product of many hundred years of judicial precedent built upon prior decisions that the framers may have had no input on.
One important feature of what is federalism is the separation of powers among the three branches of our government. Because of the inherent nature of the checks and balances that are inherent in our constitutional system, the legislative and executive branches of our government must operate with separate and distinct powers. This separation of powers gives each branch of the government the ability to make decisions that are in line with their individual powers while the courts are prohibited by the Constitution from unbalancing the powers of either the House or the Senate. This check and balance assure the supremacy of the constitution and ensure the accountability of each branch of our government.
Beyond the question of what is federalism, there are a host of other concerns. In fact, one of the major philosophical underpinnings of constitutional rule – a notion called “checks and balances” – was developed by John Locke in the seventeenth century. According to this view, all political power rested under the constitution of the state and the separation of powers guaranteed by the Constitution was designed to prevent partiality and favoritism by the majority of citizens in the states towards certain Houses of Congress and certain judges. Today, checks and balances are still an important principle of American government.