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1From a long-term historical perspective, American federalism has undergone a secular trend toward governmental centralization. State and local governments continue to play vital roles in politics, policy making, and policy implementation in the United States, but the balance of power and resources has shifted toward Washington in many areas of public policy. Masked within this long-term trend, however, have been shorter-term cycles of political centralization and decentralization. These cycles affect the slope and velocity of long-term change. For example, within the past three decades, the national policy agenda has zig-zagged from Ronald Reagan’s agenda of devolution, to Bill Clinton’s “New Democratic” policy activism (including a strong push for comprehensive national health care reform), to “Republican revolution” in the mid-1990s Congress (which sought an end to the “era of big government” and achieved the adoption of welfare reform), to the “big government conservatism” of George W. Bush, characterized by highly nationalizing policies in education and homeland security.

2This intergovernmental volatility has accelerated during the administration of President Barack Obama. Obama won the presidency with a policy agenda that promised the most sweeping expansion of the federal role since the Great Society of the 1960s. His accomplishments to date have been substantial, with the enactment of comprehensive health insurance reform, an unprecedented program of countercyclical aid to state and local governments, the “race to the top” education initiative, and the passage of financial regulatory reform. All of these have significant implications for American intergovernmental relations and the balance of national and state power in the federal system. [1] Yet Obama’s initial window of opportunity for national initiatives lasted only two years. Following dramatic Republican gains in the 2010 mid-term elections, especially by the “Tea Party” wing of the party, Obama confronted a 112th Congress with Republicans controlling the House of Representatives, smaller Democratic majorities in the Senate, and daunting fiscal challenges that portend an era of budgetary stringency and cutbacks.

3This article examines the intergovernmental implications of the national policy changes adopted over the past 30 years, with a particular focus on the dynamics of political centralization. It will discuss the political forces that appear to have increased the volatility of policy cycles in American politics, and it will attempt to place these changes into broader historical context.

Federalism and system stability

4Federal systems by nature tend to be unstable. To begin with, such systems are typically adopted by countries that are characterized by considerable ethnic, geographic, cultural, and economic diversity. Such countries tend to be ambivalent over the question of whether they constitute one political community or several. [2] Moreover, maintenance of the federal arrangement requires a political balance of power between the central and regional levels of government, and such balance is continually challenged by economic, technological, social, and political changes over time. In extreme cases, such changes can lead to dissolution of the federation itself, as in the former Yugoslavia and Soviet Union. More commonly, such economic, social, and political changes tend to produce patterns of centralization or decentralization within the federation. [3]

5Both centrifugal and centripetal forces have been apparent in American federalism over time, as social and economic changes have caused tensions in the intergovernmental balance of power. Over the course of the United States’ first seven decades, centrifugal forces gradually weakened the social and political bonds that held the republic together, leading eventually to Civil War and near dissolution of the union. Since the Civil War of the 1860s, however, the predominant long-term trend in American federalism has been in the direction of political and governmental centralization. [4] This is true both in the relationship between the national government and the states, and in relations between states and their local governments. For example, the federal share of total government revenues rose from 39% in 1902 to 56% in 1995; the states’ share during this same time grew from 11% to 26%; and the local share of total government revenue fell from 51% in 1902 to 18% in 1995. [5] Similarly, a systematic empirical analysis of federal legislation and executive orders over the post-World War II era found a general pattern of centralization in most years. [6] This national trend was mirrored at the state level; a prominent index of state–local centralization rose from 17.8 to 57.0 between 1902 and 2002, as localities ceded relative power and resources to their respective states. [7]

6In addition to changes in revenues and expenditures, the national government became involved in many more domestic functions of government during the twentieth century. [8] This included traditional state and local functions, such as education, highways and mass transportation, social services, and public safety. It also included federal leadership in developing new governmental functions, such as old age pensions, medical insurance for the elderly and poor, and significant new forms of environmental protection. Expanded federal involvement was often accomplished through greatly expanded use of federal grants-in-aid to state and local governments, as in the cases of federal aid to education, Medicaid, and interstate highway grants. In other cases, however, new federal services were funded and administered directly, as with Social Security and Medicare for the elderly, or implemented through a widening array of regulatory tools applied to state and local governments, including direct order mandates and conditions of aid in areas such as civil rights, environmental protection, and health and safety. [9]

7Many factors contributed to this long-term pattern of post-Civil War centralization. New communications and transportation technologies, beginning with the railroad and telegraph and continuing to the development of modern transportation and telecommunications, created more efficient national markets and the need for economic regulation by territorially larger units of government. The economic externalities associated with development forced changes in jurisdictional responsibilities, as larger and more geographically extensive spillover effects required more expansive units of government to encompass their costs and benefits. [10] Industrialization also encouraged centralization, by creating demands for redistributive policies and welfare-related services that are best established and funded at the national level. [11] Finally, wars tend to increase both the size and centralization of government, and the combined effects of World War I, World War II, and the Cold War had precisely this effect on US government. In particular, the transformation of the US military into a large-scale peace time force after World War II expanded both the responsibilities and salience of the national government.

8In a related but distinctive development, the operational character of US federalism evolved as government grew more centralized. American federalism was transformed in the early to mid-twentieth century from a system with substantial residual elements of “dual federalism”, characterized by the separation of government functions among the different levels of government, to a system of “cooperative federalism”, characterized by the sharing of functions across two or more levels of government. [12] The tremendous growth of federal matching grants to assist states in areas such as public welfare, social services, highways, mass transit, and public health were prominent features of such cooperation. The number of separately authorized federal grants grew from 15 in 1930 to 132 in 1960 and 397 in 1967. [13]

9The grant-in-aid mechanism thus allowed the federal government to participate actively in the broad range of domestic governmental services which were not included in the enumerated powers of the Congress under Article 1, section 8 of the Constitution. Under the concept of dual federalism, governmental functions such as education, law enforcement, and social welfare services were presumed to be the exclusive domain of the states. However, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of federal grants for non-enumerated purposes, through an expansive interpretation of Congress’s general power to “tax and spend for the general welfare”, coupled with a belief that state participation in such grants was presumed to be voluntary. [14] The resulting system of intergovernmental aid thus gave rise to an era of intergovernmental collaboration and cooperation, but it had substantial centralizing effects on the US federal system. By permitting Congress to expand its involvement into the full range of services associated with the modern welfare state, by making states increasingly dependent on federal subsidies across a range of state responsibilities, and by encouraging states and localities to alter their behavior in their quest for federal financial assistance, the intergovernmental grant system was unavoidably centralizing in its effects. Moreover, as Martha Derthick demonstrated in The Influence of Federal Grants, the conditions placed by the federal agencies on the use of federal grants, as well as the growing professionalization of administration and service delivery which grants helped to fund and inspire, promoted additional gradual policy centralization, both from state and local governments to the federal government and from local communities to the states. [15]

10In recent years, a number of contemporary scholars suggest that a third form of federalism – “coercive” or “opportunistic” federalism – emerged in the late twentieth century as the federal government relied upon more coercive regulatory instruments to achieve its objectives in the areas of civil rights, environmental protection, occupational safety, and homeland security. [16] Such regulations were virtually unknown prior to 1960, but they became commonly used tools of intergovernmental relations during and after the Great Society era. Some are simple federal mandates to state and local government to do or cease doing certain things, such as test public drinking water for contaminants or cease discrimination in the use of public funds. Others require or strongly encourage joint participation in programs regulating the private sector, or jeopardize federal funding for noncompliance with new federal requirements. [17]

11To be clear, neither the cooperative nor coercive models of federalism imply a unitary system of government. Both frameworks continue to leave a great deal of power, policy discretion, and responsibility at the state and local levels of government, both for financing and carrying out their own governing responsibilities – in areas such as education, law enforcement, land use planning, family law, and others – and for assisting with the implementation of federal policies in education, health care, transportation, and environmental protection. Still, both models reflect a more centralized federal system with historically unprecedented levels of federal funding, federal policy guidance and regulation, and federal direction of the policy agenda across the governmental spectrum.

Cyclical patterns in American federalism

12The general historical trend notwithstanding, intergovernmental change in the United States and in other federal systems is rarely unidirectional or consistent. Nested within the long-term, secular trend toward governmental centralization have been many starts and stops: periods of acceleration, periods of stability, and periods of partial decentralization. For example, the New Deal era of the 1930s and the Great Society of the 1960s produced rapid spurts in the pace and scope of governmental centralization. Both eras were characterized by a vast expansion of federal government responsibilities, greatly increased federal spending – both directly from Washington and indirectly through intergovernmental grants-in-aid – and federal direction of the nation’s policy agenda. In contrast, the 1950s and, to a lesser extent, the 1970s were periods of consolidation, in which new federal program expansions – such as the development of interstate highways in the 1950s and environmental programs in the 1970s – were matched by conscious efforts to slow the growth of federal spending and to decentralize other domestic program areas. The 1980s and the mid-1990s were eras that are commonly considered to be characterized by devolution. [18] Both decades were marked by highly salient political reactions against earlier periods of policy centralization, and ambitious efforts were launched to unwind the welfare state and decentralize the intergovernmental system. [19] Although the true scope of devolution was sometimes exaggerated, there was genuine decentralization in social welfare policy, broadly defined. Replacement of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), a cash welfare entitlement program, with the Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) block grant, efforts to cut funding for federal education programs (and even to abolish the federal Department of Education in 1995), Social Security reform, block grants for social services and public health programs – all of these and more were hallmarks of devolution during this era. [20]

13What accounts for these abrupt changes in political direction? One hypothesis would be that trends in centralization reflect generational cycles in American history. Historians Arthur Schlesinger and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. argued, for example, that cycles of liberalism and conservatism in American politics occur on a roughly generational timeframe. [21] Jacksonian democracy structured American politics from the 1830s to the 1850s, the American Civil War of the 1860s ushered in several decades of Republican dominance, followed by an era of Progressive politics, and so forth. In terms of governmental policy, they argued that liberal cycles of governmental expansion have typically been followed by one or two decades of consolidation and/or partial decentralization. For example, periods of centralization are associated with the energetic bursts of federal policy activism that occurred during the Civil War era of 1861-1868, the Progressive era of 1900-1916, the New Deal of the 1930s, and the Great Society of the 1960s.

14This generational pattern is consistent with other cyclical interpretations of American political development, such as Samuel Huntington’s framework of alternating eras of “creedal passion” and institutional consolidation. [22] Huntington’s framework suggested that the reform eras identified by Schlesinger were animated by political movements seeking to align American politics and institutions more closely with the ideals of the American creed – liberty, equality, and democracy. The generational interpretation of political change is also supported by empirical research on American elections. Careful electoral analysis has found that the cycles of change in partisan control of Congress and the White House have averaged about 13 years, with a full cycle (i.e. return to electoral dominance by the original party) taking an average of 26 years over the period from 1854 to 2006. [23]

15Although the generational hypothesis may be useful in explaining the broad arc of American political history, it does not adequately explain the patterns of policy change in contemporary intergovernmental relations. On the contrary, in the realm of intergovernmental policy, the frequency of oscillations between centralization and decentralization appears to be accelerating in recent years, giving rise to much shorter periods of centralization and reaction. For example, according to the generational hypothesis, the 1990s should have been an era of federal governmental activism and intergovernmental centralization on a par with the 1930s and 1960s. Perhaps if President Bill Clinton had succeeded in enacting a national health insurance program and other complementary initiatives, it might have been regarded as one. But this counterfactual is instructive. Clinton’s health care initiative was defeated, and the debt overhang from the 1980s forced him to advance austerity measures in his first budget. Just two years into his administration, conservative Republicans gained control of the Congress. This conservative Congress launched an aggressive program of budget cuts and reform initiatives that ushered in a brief period of devolution, which in turn lasted only four years before federal spending and new initiatives resumed under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. After leveling off in Bush’s second term, a resurgence of extraordinary growth resumed in Barack Obama’s first two years in office, only to encounter sharp challenges in 2011.

16This brief overview suggests two hypotheses, which will be the focus of the remainder of this article. First, I argue that the cycles of centralization and decentralization in American federalism are accelerating, well beyond the pace suggested by generational interpretations of political change. The following section of this article documents this acceleration of change in the period from the early 1980s to the present, which is summarized in Table 1. The subsequent section explores variables which help to explain this increased velocity in American federalism’s cycles of centralization and decentralization. It advances the hypothesis that growing partisan polarization in American politics is a critical factor in this process of acceleration.

Intergovernmental change in the contemporary era

17Both during and after Ronald Reagan’s presidency, there was much analysis of his efforts to bend the trajectory of governmental growth and centralization in the United States. [24] Coming into the White House announcing that “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem”, he proceeded to push for large-scale cuts in federal taxes and spending. A 23% cut in federal income tax rates, and a comparably large reduction in tax revenues, was enacted in the Economic Recovery and Tax Act of 1981 (ERTA). This was followed by a further reduction of income tax rates (though not of tax revenues) in the Tax Reform Act of 1986 (TRA) (see Table 1). Large reductions in federal spending were also adopted in 1981, as part of the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1981 (OBRA). Some of the spending cuts were achieved by abolishing entire federal programs; many more were accompanied by changes in program design – particularly block grants. Seventy-seven federal health care, education, and social service programs were consolidated into nine flexible block grants that provided states with 25% less federal money but more discretion into how they could spend it. In 1986, Reagan also won elimination of a four billion dollar program of General Revenue Sharing (GRS) grants to local governments.

Table 1

Contemporary trends in American federalism*

Table 1
Years President(s) Overall trend Trend in grant spending Major policy initiatives 1980-1988 Ronald Reagan Decentralizing Decrease – Abolish GRS* – OBRA – ERTA – SDWA – Tax reform 1989-1994 George H. W. Bush – Bill Clinton Centralizing Increase – ADA – CAA – Education – COPS grants – Health care reform 1995-1998 Bill Clinton – 104th Congress Decentralizing Decrease – Program terminations – Welfare reform – SDWA amendments 1999-2004 Bill Clinton – George W. Bush Centralizing Increase – NCLB – HAVA – REAL ID – Homeland security – Medicare Part D 2005-2008 George W. Bush Decentralizing Decrease – Social security privatization – TARP 2009-2010 Barack Obama Centralizing Increase – ARRA – ACA – Dodd Frank 2011-2012 Tea Party Congress Decentralizing Decrease – Debt ceiling – BCA

Contemporary trends in American federalism*

* See text for acronyms
Source: Author’s tabulation

18Although there were some modestly successful efforts to restore some of these tax and spending cuts at other times during Reagan’s presidency, Ronald Reagan was widely considered to have ushered in a period of devolution in American federalism. It was an era of “fend for yourself federalism” in the words of a prominent federal official. [25] The magnitude and direction of change is clearly evident in Figures 1-3, which show trends in intergovernmental expenditures for the period from 1980 to 2012. Federal aid spending declined significantly during the 1980s, whether measured in constant dollars (Figure 1), percentage of total federal outlays (Figure 2), or as a percentage of GDP (Figure 3).

Figure 1

Federal aid spending in constant dollars (billions)

Figure 1

Federal aid spending in constant dollars (billions)

Source: U. S. Office of Management and Budget, Budget of the United States, Historical Statistics, Table 12-1.
Figure 2

Federal grants as a percentage of total federal outlays

Figure 2

Federal grants as a percentage of total federal outlays

Source: U. S. Office of Management and Budget, Budget of the United States, Historical Statistics, Table 12-1.
Figure 3

Federal aid as a percentage of GDP

Figure 3

Federal aid as a percentage of GDP

Source: U. S. Office of Management and Budget, Budget of the United States, Historical Statistics, Table 12-1.

19Federal activism made a modest rebound under George H. W. Bush and initially under Bill Clinton. Both presidents agreed to modest increases in federal taxes to reduce large federal deficits, and they sought to restore federal policy leadership in selected domestic policy fields. Thus, Bush favored greater federal spending for elementary and secondary education, and he successfully fought for major new regulatory enactments in the areas of air pollution control and equal rights for disabled citizens. [26] The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 (CAA) established a new cap and trade program for regulating sulfur dioxide emissions, and renewed the federal–state partnership for regulating local air pollution. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) expanded and codified regulatory protections for physically and mentally disabled citizens, with major implications for providing access to state and local government services such as mass transit, health care, and education. President Clinton strove to enact a comprehensive national health insurance program, and he expanded federal efforts to support local law enforcement. Clinton’s so-called COPS program provided grants to localities to hire approximately 100,000 additional law enforcement personnel. Overall, as indicated in Figures 1-3, federal aid to state and local governments rebounded during this period from its 1980s low point under Reagan.

20Such federal government activism was short-lived, however, as devolution returned to the fore after the 1994 mid-term elections. These elections gave Republicans control over both chambers of Congress – and most notably the House of Representatives – for the first time in 40 years. Equally important, House Republicans ran explicitly on an aggressive platform of smaller government initiatives called the “Contract with America”. They pursued an agenda of cutbacks and devolution so bold as to constitute what House Speaker Gingrich termed a “Republican revolution”. For example, House Republicans sought to eliminate three entire federal government departments – Education, Energy, and Commerce – and terminate hundreds of federal programs to state and local governments. The initial budget framework advanced by House Republican leaders proposed consolidating 336 federal grant programs into just eight massive block grants, with billions fewer dollars in funding. [27]

21Congressional Republicans even forced a budgetary showdown that closed the federal government in an effort to advance their policy goals.

22Ultimately, the boldest of these initiatives failed to be enacted. The House Republicans’ ambitious goals and aggressive tactics produced strong opposition from the Clinton White House and congressional Democrats, and defections by more moderate Senate Republicans. Nevertheless, congressional Republicans were able to enact major reductions in federal spending, the termination of dozens of mostly small federal programs, and landmark legislation that transformed federal welfare grants to the states into the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant that provided considerable new flexibility to states and produced a major reduction in the number of welfare recipients. Policy changes in welfare reflected a broader environment of devolution, as state level experiments with medical assistance, education, and other programs blossomed into what many perceived to be a new era of decentralized federalism. [28]

23Perceptions of a new era of devolution were reinforced by the development of novel Supreme Court doctrines that outlined new limits on the scope of federal government powers and which favored state authority in legal conflicts between the national and state governments. [29] In 1995, for example, the Supreme Court ruled for the first time since the 1930s that a federal statute exceeded Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce. [30] In a series of cases in the late 1990s, the Court also bolstered the sovereign immunity of states from private citizens’ lawsuits, and thereby restricted Congress’s authority to authorize such suits (or so called private rights of action) as a means of implementing or enforcing federal laws. [31]

Federalism under George W. Bush

24With the election of President George W. Bush in 2000, it appeared that this new era of decentralization would continue and perhaps accelerate. For the first time in nearly 50 years, a conservative Republican president was elected to office with Republicans in control of both chambers of Congress. President Bush used this political opportunity to enact major cuts in federal taxes, thus shrinking federal revenues and eliminating the budget surplus he inherited. Yet, although he was a former governor, he was not committed to a policy of devolution. On the contrary, he had run for office as a so-called “compassionate conservative” who was willing to use the power of the federal government to promote conservative social policies.

25Bush’s philosophy was translated into legislative form in his signature piece of social legislation known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). NCLB was a federally directed reform of elementary and secondary education, which sought to raise student performance by requiring annual testing and holding schools and teachers responsible for results. Such a move constituted a major expansion of federal government influence in K-12 education, since school curricula and standards of performance were traditionally controlled by states and local school boards, with very little federal involvement. Moreover, state and local governments fund approximately 90% of the costs of elementary and secondary education, so that even with substantial increases in education aid the federal government remains very much the junior partner in education finance in the United States.

26President Bush’s original formulation for NCLB had been even more dramatic. It sought to make public education funds available for private school vouchers for those students who failed to make adequate progress in the public schools. Although this school voucher plan and system of federally determined standards were not included in the final legislation – the bill mandated instead that states construct their own testing systems for which students would be held accountable – the legislation nonetheless effected a sweeping change in the balance of power in education. Failing schools were mandated to provide additional outside services to failing students, school reorganizations and student transfers were authorized if schools still failed to meet expected standards, and state takeovers of local systems were authorized after continued failure. [32] All told, the legislation provided billions of additional dollars of federal funding, constituted the most sweeping reform of education since the 1960s, and inspired multiple, though unsuccessful, state challenges to the legislation.

27Passage of NCLB helped lead some conservatives to begin regarding President Bush as a “big government conservative” – one who was willing to use and expand the powers of the federal government in new and intrusive ways. [33] This “big government conservative” image was reinforced by Bush administration responses to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Many of the resulting homeland security initiatives not only pushed the federal government’s constitutional powers to or beyond its limits – as with the treatment and interrogation of detainees at Guantanamo – they also extended federal policies further into domestic responsibilities historically left to state and local governments. This included local law enforcement, where traditional reluctance to allow federal government involvement in local police matters gave way to new federal programs and regulations designed to standardize communications and coordination among police and emergency response services. Another federal initiative – the REAL ID act – was designed to strengthen the security of state-issued driver licenses. Congress shied away from the costs and political opposition associated with creating a new, secure national identification card and mandated instead that states implement costly procedures to enhance the security of state driver licenses. This had the effect of passing on to states an estimated $11 billion in costs for implementing the new federal requirements. [34]

28Outside of education and homeland security, the Bush administration initiated or cooperated with Congress on several other initiatives with centralizing tendencies. It supported congressional passage of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which provided several billion dollars to states to help modernize their election machinery but also imposed new mandates requiring state maintenance of voter lists and procedures for provisional voting in cases where voter credentials are disputed. The Bush Administration also insisted on amending the 1996 welfare reform legislation to stiffen the work requirements for welfare recipients, thus reducing state flexibility and imposing additional costs on states. The administration also promoted conservative social policy positions that pre-empted state authority, such as opposing state legalization of medical marijuana and physician assisted suicide, and it supported limitations on state authority to tax internet sales and wealthy estates. Finally, President Bush aggressively supported the expansion of national government responsibilities by pushing Congress to enact the Medicare Modernization Act – a costly expansion of federal health insurance coverage for the elderly – and the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) – a so-called “bailout” of large banks and insurance companies in response to the financial crisis of 2008. [35]

29Not all of Bush’s policies were centralizing in their effects. Bush administration policies with decentralizing implications included waivers for state experiments with health insurance coverage and administration support for new federal block grants to the states. He also made a strong but unsuccessful attempt to advance a privatization scheme in Social Security during his second term in office. Indeed, virtually all of Bush’s most aggressive expansions of the federal role in health care, education, and homeland security occurred in President Bush’s first term, as did the rapid growth in federal spending. Federal aid growth slowed significantly in real dollars during Bush’s second four years in office and declined relative to total federal spending and GDP.

30Nevertheless, by the end of the Bush presidency, federal aid to state and local governments had grown to $461 billion in fiscal year 2008, nearly double what was spent ten years earlier. In constant dollars, grants grew by 41% during the decade preceding 2008. Most of the increase in new spending occurred in areas favored by the president, including education – especially large additions to funding as part of No Child Left Behind – homeland security, election reform, and health care – especially Medicaid (the joint federal-state program of medical assistance to the poor) and Medicare (the federal health care program for the elderly). When President Bush left office, he also left behind an economy in shambles and a deficit of $1.2 trillion.

Federalism under Barack Obama

31Explicit debate about issues of federalism and federalism reform was largely absent in the 2008 presidential election campaign. Despite this, major issues of intergovernmental relations were implicit in many of the policy proposals made by both John McCain and Barack Obama. This included federal and state roles in financing and implementing health care reform, and candidate Obama’s pledge to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure – much of which would be carried out by state and local governments with financial assistance from federal grants – and to end federal government restrictions on state efforts to recognize gay marriages or civil unions.

32Upon President Obama’s election to office, intergovernmental issues rose immediately to the top of his agenda. He signed a $32 billion expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) in just his second week in office, thus extending health insurance coverage to 4.1 million children in lower-income working families who did not qualify for Medicaid. Even more important was the so-called economic stimulus bill signed a few weeks later: the American Recovery and Restoration Act (ARRA). Grants to state and local governments comprised approximately $275 billion (or 35%) of the total stimulus package of $787 billion. Increased funding was provided in the stimulus bill for nearly 100 separate grant programs, delivered in three basic forms: $130 billion in flexible funding to the states for Medicaid and education; approximately $100 billion for over 75 categorical grants, for narrow purposes such as broadband internet access in rural areas, high speed rail, highways, and home weatherization grants; finally, about $40 billion of additional grant funding was provided for state-administered social safety net programs like unemployment benefits and food stamps.

33As a result of this influx of new funding, the curve of federal grant spending turned sharply upward under President Obama (see Figures 1-3). Moreover, the temporary stimulus spending was reinforced by other spending requests contained in the regular budget. This included creation of a new National Infrastructure Bank, additional funding for high speed rail, community drinking water systems, port security, early childhood education, and health care reform initiatives.

34Apart from the massive economic stimulus bill, health care reform was President Obama’s other top priority and his proudest domestic policy accomplishment. Health care policy in the United States is characterized by a complex mixture of federal, state, local, nonprofit, and private sector responsibilities, which reflects the intricacies of the US federal system overall. Obama’s comprehensive health insurance reform plan was grafted onto this complex existing system. Medicaid, as noted earlier, provides medical care for the poor and for many elderly and disabled patients in long-term care. It is jointly funded by federal, state, and, in some states, local governments and administered by states and some localities. Medicare, which provides health insurance for the elderly, is financed and administered entirely by the national government. Public health services are funded and jointly administered by all three levels of government. States license doctors, nurses, and hospitals, and the federal government and the states each play roles in the regulation of private health insurance.

35Thus, health care reform inextricably involved the entire intergovernmental system. As passed, the legislation was intended to provide health insurance coverage to approximately 34 million additional people by 2018, which it does in several different ways. First it expands Medicaid to provide health coverage to low-income individuals up to 133% of the federal poverty line. Although the Supreme Court’s decision upholding the Affordable Care Act made this expansion optional rather than mandatory for the states, a majority of states appear likely to participate. [36] This method of utilizing the existing system can be advantageous for rapid implementation, but it also carries significant fiscal, policy, and administrative implications for the states. Although the federal government will provide most of the additional expense of coverage over the next decade, the expansion is still estimated to cost states 8.4 billion dollars over five years. [37] In addition, states are expected to play a role in establishing new health insurance markets for individuals and small employers, and the creation of national standards for patient care and private health insurance coverage will pre-empt state authority in these areas. [38]

36Obama administration efforts to regulate carbon emissions will also impact state and local governments. Although legislation to create a cap and trade system stalled in the Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency is developing new rules to regulate CO2 under existing clean air legislation. This will require states to implement the federal standards, when applied to stationary sources such as coal-burning power plants. [39]

37To date, the overall impact of these and other policies of the Obama administration have been centralizing in their effects on the US federal system – by expanding the national government’s role, pre-empting state and local authority, imposing minimum or uniform national standards, and potentially imposing increased costs on state and local governments. On the other hand, some other early initiatives by the Obama administration suggest a loosening of Bush-era policies. The new administration has supported some relaxation of the REAL ID act, which imposed costly new standards for state drivers’ licenses. There is also strong support in Congress and the White House for providing more flexibility in the implementation of the No Child Left Behind education program. While legislative changes in the act have made limited progress in getting through Congress, the Obama administration has launched an ambitious waiver program that allows states to avoid some of the most unrealistic mandates in the program. The administration has also signaled a willingness to be more flexible in the design of certain homeland security mandates. Taken together, however, these actions do not compensate for the overall shift toward centralization in public finance, health care, and environmental regulation.

The Tea Party movement and the 112th Congress

38Both real and exaggerated perceptions of federal government growth and centralization under President Obama provoked a powerful political backlash in the 2010 mid-term elections. Republicans made major gains, seizing control of the House of Representatives away from the President’s party, cutting the Democrats’ margin in the Senate by two-thirds, and taking over numerous governorships and state legislative chambers across the country. Moreover, many of these new Republican elected officials were extremely conservative, having run on platforms pledging to repeal national health insurance reform and to dramatically cut the size and expenditures of the federal government. [40] Both sets of issues were prominent features of the 112th Congress and in Court challenges to the Affordable Care Act.

39Tea party populism in 2010 was reinforced by budgetary experts’ concerns about the rapid expansion of the federal government’s deficit and the long-term sustainability of health care and entitlement spending. Three separate deficit reduction commissions issued reports in late 2010, and all recommended significant cuts in federal spending growth, major changes in federal entitlement programs, and reform of the federal income tax system.

40Consequently, spending and deficit reduction became central issues on the policy agenda for both Congress and President Obama in 2011, and their responses had significant implications for American federalism. Both enacted and pending reductions in so-called nondefense discretionary spending, totaling more than $1 trillion over ten years, will reduce levels of federal aid to state and local governments. [41] Proposals impacting both federal aid and state–local tax expenditures programs were also central to the negotiations between the Congress and the White House over the so-called “fiscal cliff” in late 2012. Finally, conservative challenges to the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act were partially successful, with the Court deciding that the federal government could not require states to participate in the expansion of subsidized health care under Medicaid. Although Barack Obama’s reelection as president in 2012 means that conservative efforts to repeal the ACA are no longer realistic, implementation of the health care act will be complicated by Republican resistance in both Congress and the states.

41Thus, there is strong evidence in contemporary American politics for the hypothesis that the cyclical alternations between centralization and decentralization in American federalism have accelerated. Significant changes in policy direction now occur far more frequently than would occur through generational cycles of political change. The factors contributing to this acceleration are the focus of the following section.

Explaining policy change and volatility

42A number of distinct but potentially reinforcing factors help to explain the recurring cycles of centralization and decentralization in federal systems, as well as the political volatility that can accelerate these cycles. Economic change is one important factor influencing the balance of intergovernmental power in federal systems. Although it best explains long-term shifts in the balance of power between center and periphery, it can serve as a conditioning factor for short-term trends. Economic change is often driven by technological innovation, which also impacts the territorial landscape of political power through advancements in transportation and communications. Once again, however, technological change is best understood as an independent variable affecting longer-term trends in federal–state relations. Finally, changes in the political party system in the United States act as an intermediate endogenous variable affecting the balance of power between the federal government and state and local governments. Changes in the party system have directly contributed to increased volatility in the US policy making process due to increased levels of partisan polarization. It is this increased partisan polarization in American politics that most directly explains the acceleration of cyclical patterns in US intergovernmental policy.

Economic change

43Modernization theory, which examines the effects of increased economic complexity and interdependence on social organization and values, helps to explain the long-term trend toward centralization in American federalism, and its core insights apply to contemporary developments as well. Economic modernization has tended to promote centralization as advances in transportation, production and trade create larger markets. These developments, in turn, generate market failures and so called “spillover effects” on a geographically larger scale, thus driving demands for regulation by more territorially expansive levels of government. [42]

44This process helped to drive centralization of regulatory authority in American federalism during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, beginning with regulation of railroads and later banking, financial securities, air transportation, and pollution. In each of these cases, state regulatory efforts proved ineffective as national markets expanded, and economic reformers campaigned successfully for national regulation.

45This process continues in the modern era of global markets, spurring demands for both national and international market regulations. This was evident in the dramatic increase in federal environmental regulations from the late 1960s on. It is evident most recently in the Wall Street and Health Care reform legislation of 2010, and in global efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions. While business interests often oppose the adoption of new government regulations, national and multi-national firms also prefer uniformity over diversity in regulatory regimes. Hence, business interests often lobby for federal government pre-emption of state regulatory authority and, in some cases, regulation by international bodies or treaties, when environmental, trade, and financial issues have global implications. In the United States, both instances elevate the role of the federal government relative to the states, because of its constitutional authority to regulate commerce between the states and with other nations.

46The traditional modernization framework helps to explain the long-term trend toward centralization, but on its own it does not explain recent trends or rapid shifts toward decentralization. However, a second dimension to economic change is helpful in this regard. Globalization has encouraged the development of regional economies which specialize in niche areas of competitive advantage. [43] Advancements in information technology have helped to enhance this trend, promoting flatter and more flexible organizations, less constrained by hierarchy. This economic trend has elevated the advantages of regional governing institutions in federal systems – American states, Canadian provinces, Swiss cantons and German Länder. [44] The ability of smaller regional governments to respond to the needs of their local economies has broad economic advantages and generates pressures for greater flexibility in governing state (or provincial) affairs. These advantages are also evident in regional governments’ ability to adapt policies to the needs of local labor markets. Hence, job training, welfare, education, and social services can all be adapted to local needs – a pattern seen in both the United States and in European social policies. [45]

47The tensions between these two economic forces can produce variability and policy volatility in federal systems. Moreover, it is important to note that economic modernization is only one factor affecting government policies and institutions. Other social influences, such as ethnic, linguistic, and religious diversity, may be of equal or greater importance. Such social diversity helps to explain the centrifugal forces that have threatened federal systems in culturally diverse nations such as Canada and Belgium and have led to the dissolution of others, such as Yugoslavia, despite economic tendencies favoring centralization.

Politics and technological change

48Technological changes – particularly changes in mass media and communications, have also increased political volatility and affected policy making at both the federal and state levels. Among the most important changes, from a federalism perspective, has been the long-term trend toward nationalization of communications media – the rise of national newspapers and news magazines, consolidation of the newspaper industry, and the development of broadcast media, particularly television, as a driver of national news and culture. [46] This nationalization of media was a significant contributor to long-term political centralization, advancing the public’s focus on national issues, often to the detriment of state and local issues. Indeed, state governments were often overlooked and comparatively invisible to an increasingly nationalized new media. [47] National political leaders, in contrast, often proved adept at mastering new media sources to advance their political goals. This was evident in Theodore Roosevelt’s effective use of new nationally circulated magazines at the turn of the twentieth century, Franklin Roosevelt’s mastery of radio in the 1930s, and John F. Kennedy’s utilization of television in the 1960s. All contributed to a nationalization of the policy agenda at key moments in American history.

49With the growth and development of the internet, social media, and cable news outlets in recent years, fragmentation of the media now rivals and sometimes reinforces nationalization as a critical trend. Both fragmentation and nationalization have contributed to a less mediated political system, which makes it possible for politicians and political activists to go around or “over the heads” of political, governing, and journalistic elites. Both Barack Obama and Tea Party activists have taken advantage of this new openness in communications to circumvent established leaders and propel themselves into positions of political prominence. As the stark differences in the political agendas of Obama and conservative Tea Partiers demonstrates, this more open and less mediated political system is much more volatile than in the past, making it subject to dramatic swings in political outcomes.

50In policy making, volatility is associated with symbolism-based coalition building. Rather than assembling legislative majorities through partisan cohesion or interest-based coalitions, symbolic coalitions are built around issue framing and value consensus. This allows enactments such as “Megan’s law” – which required local police departments to inform communities when convicted sex offenders settled in neighborhoods after release from prison – to race quickly through Congress with nearly unanimous support. Another example was the USA Patriot Act enacted in 2001. Although it was larded with highly controversial provisions that increased governmental authority to surveil and prosecute suspected terrorists and other security suspects, the legislation passed Congress rapidly and by large margins in the wake of 9-11. Such laws pass due to the widespread, though sometimes superficial, attractiveness of the idea, often with only superficial information and without hearings or painstaking coalition building. Members of Congress are afraid to be seen questioning a simple or popular idea or policy position. Regardless, such laws may have important intergovernmental consequences – mandated costs to state and local governments, or intrusion into traditional state or local responsibilities – that are ignored in the rush to passage.

51This potential for volatility in policy making is reinforced by American political culture. The American public has long been ambivalent on questions of government involvement in the economy and society. Opinion researchers have described Americans as ideological conservatives, who agree with abstract platitudes about small government and individual self-reliance, and pragmatic liberals, who favor a broad range of specific government spending programs and interventions that promote economic security, environmental protection, civil rights, and public welfare. [48] Thus, political context and issue framing can elicit dramatically different political responses from the public, depending on the use of phrasing, anecdotes, or slogans. [49] In public welfare policy, for example, public opinion polls have shown consistent support for government assistance to people in need. When the term “welfare” is used in place of aid to the needy, however, public support drops considerably, due to negative connotations associated with welfare programs. [50] Politicians are often able to elicit support for very different policies by framing issues in ways that exploit this underlying ambivalence. Because the financing and delivery of welfare services in the United States is broadly shared among all three levels of government, as well as the non-profit sector, policy changes stemming from public ambivalence in this area can have enormous intergovernmental consequences, as was evident in the case of the 1996 welfare reform law.

Political polarization

52Communications and culture are only two dimensions of the political changes that have created a more volatile and less mediated political system. Changes in the political party system and among interest groups have diminished the influence of state and local government officials in the political system and contributed to growing ideological polarization between the parties.

53Traditionally, the political party system in the United States had its foundations at the state and local levels. Mayors and governors were either leaders or handpicked representatives of these organizations, which provided patronage and local services to party workers and loyal party supporters. Members of Congress typically owed their nomination and election to these local party structures. [51] In contrast, the national party organizations were weak and episodic. They existed primarily to bring the state and local party leaders together every four years to nominate a presidential candidate.

54This system gave tremendous political leverage to state and local governments to protect their interests in national policy decisions. Indeed, in the view of some scholars, it was the single most important feature responsible for decentralization in American federalism. [52] Party decentralization was reinforced by other institutional features which came to be regarded as “the political safeguards of federalism”. [53]

55Over time, however, this locally based political system declined, and with it much of the political leverage that mayors and governors held over Congress. Government provision of welfare services, and reforms of patronage and civil service systems eroded the foundations of the state–local political system. So too did the movement toward nominating political candidates through electoral primaries rather than party caucuses. Self-recruitment by ambitious office seekers, who cobbled together independent, personal bases of support, became more common than the older system of local party screening and recruitment. [54]

56At the same time, the national party organizations grew stronger, especially in congressional elections. National party leaders became increasingly active and successful in campaign fund-raising, in defining policy agendas, and in recruiting and training congressional candidates for office. In the process, the party candidates became more ideologically coherent and polarized, attuned less to the attitudes of median voters and elected officials in their districts and more to ideologically polarized partisan activists. This increased polarization is clearly evident in congressional voting on legislation, which has seen the average party unity score of members of Congress grow from 60% in 1970 to almost 90% in 2010, as well as in the widening ideological gulf between the two parties. [55] An alternative measure of polarization in Congress, which traces ideological patterns in legislative roll call votes since 1879, shows a similar trend. First dimension DW Nominate scores, which measure patterns in congressional roll call voting along the traditional left/right dimension, show that the contemporary Congress, particularly the House of Representatives, has become more politically polarized than at any other time during the past 130 years, and far more polarized than was common during most of the twentieth century. [56] (See Figure 4.)

Figure 4

Party polarization 1879-2011. Distance between the parties, first dimension (liberal-conservative scale)

Figure 4

Party polarization 1879-2011. Distance between the parties, first dimension (liberal-conservative scale)

57This increased ideological polarization between the political parties has tended to produce a so-called “leapfrog effect” when control of Congress changes parties. Since Republican and Democratic candidates tend to be more extreme than rank and file voters, a change of party control in Congress shifts the policy agenda from one extreme to the other. [57] This helps to explain the growing policy volatility seen in the change from Republican control of Congress after the 2006 elections, and again with the election of a Republican House in 2010. Because federalism is central to the design and implementation of domestic policy in the United States, such policy shocks and volatility have major impacts on the federal system – as seen in the adoption of and challenges to national health insurance, dramatic spending increases in Obama’s stimulus plan, and sharp cutbacks in spending in the 112th Congress.

58Finally, there is another important ideological dimension in recent American politics that also has major implications for intergovernmental policy and the federal system. The post-1970s political success of American conservatives was attributable in part to the successful but uneasy consolidation of several competing, and in some important respects contradictory, strands of conservative thought – libertarianism, religiously inspired social conservatism, neoconservatism, and traditional Burkean institutional conservatism. [58] Only the latter strain is genuinely committed to decentralized federalism as a core policy value. For the other strands of conservatism, policy positions consistent with decentralized federalism and “states’ rights” are conditional in nature. Pro-federalism positions and rhetoric are attractive to these other conservative strains when opposing liberal policies at the national level. But, at least since the Reagan administration, both libertarian and social conservatives have readily supported uniform national policies consistent with their core beliefs and values whenever they have had the opportunity to implement such favored policies on a national scale. This was apparent in cases ranging from Ronald Reagan’s willingness to support a coercive federal mandate to force state adoption of a uniform national drinking age, as well as numerous attempts by congressional Republicans to impose conservative social welfare policies on the states. [59] It is evident as well in the many efforts by both the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations to pre-empt state consumer and environmental protection regulations, on behalf of uniform, and less regulated, national markets. Indeed, economic conservatives have supported some of the most aggressive acts of federal regulatory and revenue pre-emption in recent years, consistent with their ultimate goal of smaller government and unencumbered markets, rather than decentralized federalism. [60]

59The conditional nature of economic and social conservatives’ commitment to federalism is significant because these two strains have eclipsed the influence of traditional, institutional conservatism in recent years. Traditional institutionalists such as Sen. Robert Bennett (R-UT) and Richard Lugar (R-IN) have been successfully challenged by Tea Party conservatives in Republican primaries in 2010 and 2014, and the chilling effect has contributed to growing extremism among congressional Republicans. [61] In the process, the conservative commitment to a traditional, decentralized form of federal governance has diminished as well.


60American federalism remains a remarkably fluid institution, even after 200 years of evolution. This malleability reflects the dual nature of federalism, which is both an institution and a process. As an institution, federalism can appear to be inflexible and hidebound, especially compared to more flexible “type II” forms of multilevel governance. [62] By design, federalism entails structural rigidities, such as fixed state/provincial boundaries and some division of political power that enjoys extraordinary legal protection. As a set of intergovernmental processes, on the other hand, federalism evolves continually in response to competing forces of centralization and decentralization. The velocity of that evolution is subject to change, however. As hypothesized, there is substantial evidence that the alternation of policy cycles between centralization and decentralization has accelerated in recent years, propelled in particular by the increasing polarization of American politics.

61This combination of accelerating cycles in the locus of political power within the rigid institutional structures of federalism may pose a long-term challenge to system stability. It can feed the growing disenchantment of Americans toward their political institutions, and it may undermine one of the most attractive elements of American federalism. Federalism scholars have long noted the potential for American states to offer a counterbalance to political trends in Washington. [63] Historically, states provided a refuge for conservative policy initiatives during the post-New Deal era when liberals largely shaped the policy agenda of the federal government. In more recent years, progressive policy activists discovered the virtue of federalism during the Reagan and Bush administrations, when conservatives came to power in Washington. Progressives turned increasingly to state-level policy initiatives, in areas ranging from climate change legislation, to consumer protection initiatives, to the legalization of gay marriage and medical marijuana. Yet such political recalibrations of federalism take time to emerge, and the rapid cycling behavior of recent years threatens to undermine the potential for this form of policy experimentation to operate effectively.

62This challenge may not materialize, however, because American political history would suggest that the acceleration of centralization cycles will not persist. Examining past historical cycles, scholars such as Samuel Huntington and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. found periods of political ferment were followed by eras of relative stability and consolidation. Much the same pattern emerges from research on partisan realignment, in which “critical elections” are followed by stable party regimes. The future of American federalism may depend on whether past patterns of cyclical behavior persist into the future. To the extent that contemporary intergovernmental policy trends are driven by new technologies and new patterns of political behavior, the past may no longer be prologue.


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    Martha Derthick, Keeping the Compound Republic: Essays on American Federalism (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2001).
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    See Samuel H. Beer, “The modernization of American federalism”, Publius: The Journal of Federalism, 3(2), 1973, 49-95; and John D. Donahue and Mark A. Pollack, “Centralization and its discontents: the rhythms of federalism in the United States and the European Union”, in Kalypso Nicolaidis and Robert Howse (eds), The Federal Vision: Legitimacy and Levels of Governance in the United States and the European Union (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).
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    U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, The Federal Role in the Federal System: The Dynamics of Growth, vol.1 (Washington, DC: 1980); Harry Scheiber, “Federalism and legal process: contemporary and historical views of the American system” Law and Society Review, 14(3), 1980, 663-722; and William Riker, Federalism: Origins, Operation, Significance (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1964).
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    Ann O. M. Bowman and George A. Krause. “Power shift: measuring policy centralization in U.S. intergovernmental relations, 1947-1998.” American Political, Research, 31, May 2003, 301-25.
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    U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, The Federal Role in the Federal System: The Dynamics of Growth (Washington, DC: Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, 1981).
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    See Oates, Fiscal Federalism, and Paul Peterson, Barry Rabe, and Kenneth Wong, Making Federalism Work (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1986).
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    Scheiber, “Federalism and legal process”, and Morton Grodzins, The American System: A New View of Government in the United States (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1965). The US concept of cooperative federalism, emphasizing shared and complementary policy making, financing, and administration across levels of government is distinguishable from the concept as commonly applied to the German case, which denoted policy making at the federal level and administration by the Länder.
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    David B. Walker, The Rebirth of Federalism: Slouching Toward Washington (New York: Chatham House, 1995), 17, 105.
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    Massachusetts v. Mellon.
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    Martha Derthick, The Influence of Federal Grants (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970).
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    See John Kincaid, “From cooperative to coercive federalism”, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 509, May 1990, 139-52; Timothy Conlan, “From cooperative to opportunistic federalism”, Public Administration Review, 66(5), 2006, 663-76.
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    See, for example, John D. Donahue, Disunited States: What’s At Stake As Washington Fades And The States Take The Lead (New York: Basic Books, 1997); and Conlan, From New Federalism to Devolution.
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    Paul Pierson, Dismantling the Welfare State? Reagan, Thatcher and the Politics of Retrenchment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).
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    Paul Pierson, The New Politics of the Welfare State (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).
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    See Arthur M. Schlesinger, Paths to the Present (New York: Macmillan, 1949) and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., The Cycles of American History (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986), ch. 2.
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    Samuel P. Huntington, American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981).
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    Samuel Merrill III, Bernard Grofman, and Thomas L. Brunell, “Cycles in American national electoral politics, 1854-2006: statistical evidence and an explanatory model”, American Political Science Review, 102(1), 2008, 1-17.
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    See Timothy Conlan, From New Federalism to Devolution: Twenty-five Years of Intergovernmental Reform (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1998); and Pierson, Dismantling the Welfare State?
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    John Shannon, “The return of Fend-for-Yourself Federalism: the Reagan marks”, Intergovernmental Perspective 13, Summer-Fall 1987, 34-7.
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    The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
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    Barbara Vobejda, “GOP outlines broad welfare reform: proposal would replace federal programs with block grants to states”, Washington Post (7 January 1995).
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    Donahue, Disunited States: What’s at Stake as Washington Fades and the States Take the Lead.
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    Timothy J. Conlan and Francois Vergniolle de Chantal, “The Rehnquist Court and contemporary American federalism”, Political Science Quarterly, 116(2), 2001, 253-75.
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    The Court, in U.S. v. Lopez, overturned the Gun Free School Zone Act. The Court reaffirmed the seriousness of its interest in restricting the scope of the Commerce Power in the case of United States v. Morrison in 2000, which overturned the Violence Against Women Act of 1994.
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    See, among others, Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida (1996) and Alden v. Maine (1999).
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    Patrick J. McGuinn, No Child Left Behind and the Transformation of Federal Education Policy, 1965-2005 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2006).
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    National Governors’ Association, National Association of State Legislatures, and American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, The REAL ID Act: National Impact Analysis (Washington DC, 2006).
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    For additional details on each of these initiatives, see Publius: The Journal of Federalism, 37(3), summer 2007. The entire issue is devoted to articles related to the topic of “US federalism and the Bush administration”.
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    See Supreme Court of the United States, National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, 567 U. S. (2012); and Peter Grier, “Obama’s Medicaid expansion: How many states are likely to rebel?” The Christian Science Monitor, 8 December 2012.
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    John Holahan and Stan Dorn, “What is the impact of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act on the states?” (Washington, DC: Urban Institute, June 2010), 2.
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    For additional details, see Tim Conlan and Paul Posner, “Inflection point? Federalism and the Obama administration”, in Publius: The Journal of Federalism, 41(3), 2011, 421-46.
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    Kim Chipman and Simon Lomax, “EPA issues carbon guidance to help states enforce rules”, Bloomberg News (10 November 2010), at (last accessed 12 December 2014).
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    John Newhouse, “Europe’s rising regionalism”, Foreign Affairs, 76, January-February 1997, 67-84.
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    See Alice Rivlin, Reviving the American Dream: The Economy, The States, and the Federal Government (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1992); and Mariely Lopez-Santana, “‘Soft Europeanization?’: the differential influence of the European Employment Strategy in Belgium, Spain, and Sweden”, in M. Heidenreich and J. Zeitlin (eds), Changing European Welfare and Employment Regimes: The Influence of the Open Method of Coordination on National Labour Market and Social Welfare Reforms (London: Routledge, 2009).
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    Cantril and Cantril, Reading Mixed Signals, 51.
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    Gary C. Jacobson, The Politics of Congressional Elections (New York: Pearson/Longman, 2004, 6th edn), 22-5.
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    This score marks the percentage of times a member of Congress votes with the majority of his or her party in cases where the two parties are divided on an issue. See Roger Davidson, Walter Oleszek, and Frances Lee, Congress and Its Members (Thousand Oaks, CA: CQ Press, 2012, 12th edn), 263, 264.
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    Keith T. Poole, “An update on political polarization (through 2011)”, Voteview Blog, 30 January 2012, at For more on this approach to measuring congressional voting behavior, see Keith T. Poole and Howard Rosenthal, Ideology and Congress (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2007).
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    Mann and Ornstein, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks.
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From a long historical perspective, American federalism has undergone a secular trend toward governmental centralization. State and local governments continue to play vital roles in politics, policy making, and policy implementation in the United States, but the balance of power and resources has shifted toward Washington. Masked within this long-term trend have been many shorter cycles of political centralization and decentralization, however. This article examines the intergovernmental implications of the national policy changes adopted over the past thirty years, with a particular focus on the interactions between American federalism and the welfare state. It discusses the political forces that appear to have increased the volatility of centralizing and devolutionary cycles in American politics, and it places these changes into broader historical perspective.

Timothy J. Conlan
Timothy J. Conlan is a professor at George Mason University, Virginia, United States. He is the author of many books, monographs, articles and book chapters in the areas of federalism, legislative politics and public policy making. His 1988 book, New Federalism: Intergovernmental Reform from Nixon to Reagan, received the Martha Derthick Book Award from the Section on Federalism and Intergovernmental Relations of the American Political Science Association in 1998, and in 2002 he received the Daniel J. Elazar Distinguished Scholar Award from the Federalism Section of APSA. Conlan is a Fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and served as a Fulbright Senior Scholar at Erasmus Universiteit in the Netherlands in 1998. From 1985-86, he served as assistant staff director of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Intergovernmental Relations.
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