Pandemic proves the wisdom of federalism

Jay Cost

The coronavirus outbreak in the United States has served as a good reminder to Americans of the virtues of federalism. Not only are the president and his top staff working on the crisis at a national level, but governors, county commissioners, and mayors are focusing on the manifestation of this disease on a state and local level. This enables the government as a whole to have an ideal response to the pandemic — tailored to local conditions without sacrificing national coherence.

The concept of federalism, or the coexistence of federal and state governments in their own spheres of power, is premised on the constitutional limits of federal power. Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution does not grant Congress unlimited power. Rather, its authority is enumerated, which by implication left the state governments with the remaining power of government. When the Bill of Rights was passed by Congress in 1789, the legislature made that implication explicit in the 10th Amendment, which reserves all power not delegated to the federal government to the states or the people at large.

Like many aspects of our Constitution, the concept of federalism was left vague by the Founding Fathers, to be worked out through the everyday practice of politics. As it evolved over the first few decades of American life, federalism emphasized the federal government’s role in foreign policy, as well as creating a national economic marketplace through internal improvements, public-private financial institutions such as the Bank of the United States, and tariffs for industry. The rapid pace of industrialization and integration in the latter part of the 19th century necessarily expanded the federal government’s power. The Constitution grants Congress the authority to regulate interstate commerce, which increasingly amounted to more and more of American economic activity. In the 20th century, the Supreme Court took a very broad view of what counted as interstate commerce, legitimizing federal authority in wide swaths of economic activity. Starting with the New Deal, the federal government began intervening in state matters not by forcing activity but by offering cash assistance, with strings attached. The Great Society of the 1960s followed this approach, further increasing the scope of the federal government.

Nevertheless, the states (which incidentally are sovereign over localities) retain a great deal of control over many matters of day-to-day life. Education, criminal justice, transportation, the environment, licensing and regulation, social welfare, and public health all fall under their jurisdiction to a large degree, although they are rarely able to make dictates without at least the indirect influence of the federal government these days.

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