Federalism

In this article, I investigate whether the growth of special districts in the fifty states from 1972 to 2002 can be explained by choices made by local general-purpose governments in response to different degrees of government autonomy in the fiscal, institutional, and political system. Focusing on three dimensions of government autonomy—local government capacity, local government discretion, and local government importance—I find that the growth of certain types of special districts is in part a response to state laws constraining government autonomy of general-purpose governments. The findings also suggest that reliance on special districts by local general-purpose governments would decrease if they had stronger own-source revenue-raising capacities and more diversified tax revenue bases. In contrast with prior studies, the analysis provides limited evidence to support the notion that special districts are formed by general-purpose governments to circumvent fiscal restrictions, such as debt limits and tax and expenditure limitations.

For much of the twentieth century the landscape of American federalism was characterized by accumulation of power by the national government. In recent decades influential political and legal thinkers have called for devolution of governmental power to the states and localities, where, they argue, such powers properly belong and are more effectively exercised. One of the recurrent argumentative tropes in the devolutionary literature maintains that devolution is more desirable than centralization because it better protects and enhances individual liberty, and not merely the sovereignty of the states. The project of this essay is to challenge this alleged linkage by examining four of its most common and compelling manifestations. Utilizing Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between negative and positive liberty, the essay offers critical analysis of claims that devolution serves individual liberty by (1) facilitating policy experimentation, (2) spurring interjurisdictional competition, (3) promoting local self-government, and (4) enforcing the limits of governmental power.

This article, a pilot study, examines the behavior of courts in federalism disputes. It explores the circumstances that lead courts to take a centralist or, more interestingly, a noncentralist stance in disputes between national and subnational governments. Several hypotheses are tested, relying on a sample of eleven federations, with attention to institutional features such as the extent of subnational representation in federal policymaking, the degree of integration of the party system, the role of states in the appointment of judges and composition of the court, the extent of decentralization of the federal system, and the devolutionary and multinational nature of the federation. Courts seem more likely to take a noncentralist stance in the presence of weak representation of subnational governments at the federal level, a low centralization gradient or, in particular, the context of a devolutionary multinational state. In contrast, low representation of states in selection of judges or composition of the courts seem to encourage a more centralist stance.

This article examines Martha Derthick’s view of the American federal system as developed primarily in her book Keeping the Compound Republic, focusing on the system’s enduring features and evolution in the twentieth century and considering the value of the compound republic and what is necessary to sustain it. Derthick’s understanding of federalism, which was shaped in important ways by her mentor Edward C. Banfield, favors a pragmatic blending and balancing of national and federal elements to create healthy communities with the objective of fostering self-government. This understanding rejects three popular notions of federalism—federalism as policy efficiency, states’ rights federalism, and political process federalism. In contrast with these alternative approaches, Derthick develops a principled stand for federalism that opposes commandeering of states and supports representative self-government.

The dominant perspective on federalism and American public opinion suggests that Americans simply do not consider federalism when making policy evaluations. Recently, however, several scholars have argued that even if Americans do not make legalistic or theoretical references to federalism, they often think intuitively about intergovernmental politics. This study presents the results of a three-part survey experiment designed to assess how readily individuals come to think about federalism when evaluating public policy. In general, individuals do not consider the intergovernmental implications of policy, even when asked to explicitly compare two levels of government. Overwhelmingly, individual preference for government activity obscures concerns for federalism in eight of nine substantive policy domains. Yet, this indeterminacy does not mean that public opinion is irrelevant for studies of American federalism. Rather, it is a highly malleable instrument that political elites can use to leverage public support for policies.

This article contributes to our understanding of the development of the federal aspect of the Electoral College by analyzing how and why states adopted the general ticket method currently used by all but two states. I examine early state experimentation with methods of choosing presidential electors, at a time when several prominent founders viewed the district system as the most principled method. I also focus on developments after the 1824 election, when Congress rejected a constitutional amendment requiring states to adopt the district system and the general ticket system grew in popularity. I show that it was in the course of these debates in the 1820s that the general ticket system acquired a new principled defense: that it best represented state majorities in the presidential selection process. This analysis enhances our understanding of one of the political safeguards of federalism, by explaining the entrenchment of state authority over the mode of choosing electors as well as adoption and justification of the general ticket system.

This article describes how partisan actors during the Obama years have escalated polarization by transforming policy disputes into constitutional contests over the ground rules of the federal system—contests, moreover, in which one bloc of politically like-minded states opposes another. The article examines in particular how Republicans have supported strong claims of state sovereignty, and in some cases resurrected the antebellum doctrine of nullification, to deny to either Congress or the executive branch the authority to reform state health care markets or to limit states’ emissions of greenhouse gases. Democrats have reinforced the partisan divide by declining to debate the constitutionality of their policies, instead invoking supposedly settled judicial precedent; and by enabling President Obama to create new federal policy through direct negotiation with like-minded states, thus circumventing congressional obstruction. Ironically, both parties appear willing to shrink the power and authority of an already diminished Congress, a development with unsettling implications for the future.

For much of the twentieth century the landscape of American federalism was characterized by accumulation of power by the national government. In recent decades influential political and legal thinkers have called for devolution of governmental power to the states and localities, where, they argue, such powers properly belong and are more effectively exercised. One of the recurrent argumentative tropes in the devolutionary literature maintains that devolution is more desirable than centralization because it better protects and enhances individual liberty, and not merely the sovereignty of the states. The project of this essay is to challenge this alleged linkage by examining four of its most common and compelling manifestations. Utilizing Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between negative and positive liberty, the essay offers critical analysis of claims that devolution serves individual liberty by (1) facilitating policy experimentation, (2) spurring interjurisdictional competition, (3) promoting local self-government, and (4) enforcing the limits of governmental power.

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