Federalism: Old Idea with Modern Applications

Larry Socha, Consular Officer

Читати українською

United States Capitol
United States Capitol

What do gun control, same-sex marriage, and medical marijuana have in common?  They all involve issues of federalism, the topic of my discussion with students at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv two weeks ago.  Federalism is one of those political science terms that can seem pretty dull at first.  However, many of the issues that dominate the American headlines involve this important Constitutional element.

Federalism is a system of government in which a Constitution divides power between a central government and regional governments.  Perhaps the greatest fear our national leaders had when writing the Constitution was centralizing authority into the power of too few individuals.  Remember the focus of Thomas Jefferson’s pen and the national outrage in the Declaration of Independence was the solitary figure of King George III.  Jefferson’s colleagues like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin were careful to construct a government of divided power so no one individual or group would dominate.

The result was the U.S. Constitution ratified in 1789 and still in use today.  The national government has expressed powers that individual states don’t have, for example the power to declare war and coin money.  However, the important Tenth Amendment of the Constitution reserves powers for the states.  That is to say, if the Constitution doesn’t specifically delegate a power to the national government or deny it to the states, then the powers are “reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

So how do we get from George Washington to the issues of gun control, same-sex marriage, or medical marijuana?  These issues involve powers and decisions by both state and national governments.  For example, California voters legalized the use of medical marijuana in 1996.  There’s no mention of marijuana in the Constitution.  Therefore it’s up to every state to decide according to the Tenth Amendment, right?  Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that since the federal Controlled Substances Act of 1970 criminalizes the use of marijuana – for whatever purpose.  The federal government does have the expressed Constitutional right to regulate interstate commerce and the reasoning here is that the cultivation and use of marijuana in one state affects the interstate market for marijuana.  So what we get is a certain legal tension in states like California where state law and federal law conflict.

“Well, isn’t this bad for democracy and the rule of law?” one student asked me.  And I responded that one argument in the defense of federalism is that the system allows for states to serve as laboratories, to try out policies on a local level to see perhaps if they could succeed in furthering freedom and democracy one day on a national level.  What we do have in the United States, too thankfully, are strong institutions, like the U.S. Supreme Court, that are charged with working out these issues.  The Court’s decision in the interpretation of the Constitution is the supreme law of the land.  So what about gun control and same-sex marriage?  Watch the news.  The U.S. Supreme Court is writing the next political science textbook as I type.


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