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Dichotomy of Federalism

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Federalism is a form of governance where authority is divided between a regional government such as a state or local government and a central government; usually through a written constitution. Dichotomy of federalism captures the essence of federal government in regard to the form of governance that consists of central and state governments. The formation of the United States federal system over a central system of government was conceived on realization of the difficulties that would suffice to a unitary central system due to the large size of all the States combined. Among the challenges, was communication, isolation of some States, and large size of governance regions making governance of colonies difficult (Schimdt et al, 2008). In theory, both governments enjoy equal powers to act directly through actions of elected representatives and laws, and within each government’s sphere of authority, each government is supreme (Schmidt et al, 2008).

Nonetheless, in practice, the Central and State governments have experienced power struggles with specific periods experiencing strong central government influence on state policies and laws and other times states asserting themselves in regard to their role in making state laws. The increasing role of central government in shaping and directing of law making in the states over the years has resulted from an increased convergence of massive problems such as constricted supplies of energy, a finite environment and the recent depressed economy. Such challenges have resulted to a greater intervention on state law making realm from the central government; such as the recently introduced economic stimulus package and the health care law where the central government mandated the states to buy health insurance (Will, 2010). In the federal mandatory health requirement, many states went to court to challenge the constitutionality of the mandate.

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However, such interventions, when in incongruity with state laws have raised questions regarding the desired conception of the model of federalism mode of governance; with critics arguing correctly that federalism is best conceived as consisting of strong State rights with limited role for the federal government in dictating the laws of state and local government. The new approach thus diverges from the original conception of federalism as envisaged by the American founders. As argued by Madison, in the Federalist paper No. 51, a strong federal system would protect the populace from the will of an unjust majority and also from the absolute power of a central national government (Schimdt et al, 2010). Madison believed that the ideal conception of a federal system would exists only when power surrendered by the people is first shared between the two separate governments and for power allotted to each government further divided into separate and distinct departments, thereby allowing for existence of doubles security with the different governments controlling each other and each government controlling itself through the departments (Schmidt et al, 2010).

In offering a contrasting view to the widely held idea that states and the central government as espoused in federalism exists on clear and rigid lines, with interaction between the two characterized by fighting for dominance over each other, Elazar Daniel advanced a new hypothesis asserting that federalism involves high level of cooperation and partnership in the interaction of state governments and central governments. Elazar further concluded that rather than being a governance structure, federalism was a process that requires partnership and cooperation within the governance structure (Elazar, 1971).  In this context, Elazar (1971) summarized his beliefs on what federalism entails by concluding that,”... the idea of cooperation envisaged in federalism aims to link free men in common tasks without violating their respective integrities as partners in the common enterprise, which is directed to the building of unity amidst diversity” (15).

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While it is plausible that various changes have occurred over the years such as faster communication and a convergence of challenges affecting all states such as economic downturn, energy problems and environmental issues, the role of federal government in setting laws for local governance should still be curtailed for effective governance of the States. Various other reasons support the conception of federalism to exist with state having strong rights to determine their destiny. While in many instances, Elazars postulation is viable, in many other instances there exists evident dominance struggles between the central governments and the states. In many of such cases, conflicting interests may abound despite the obvious necessity of partnerships as envisaged by Elazar.

For instance, recent immigration laws in Arizona were challenged by the central government on the basis of federalism while other evident cases of conflicts, lack of cooperation or partnerships include the federal mandate requirement for states to purchase health care that lead to many states going to court to challenge the constitutionality of the case (Will, 2010). Clearly different interests that may exist between the states and the central government are major sources of conflict and in many cases the central government is able to push through most of its agendas. In such cases, the risk to the tenets of protections envisaged and conceived by Madison, in regard to protecting the populace from a rogue central government is eroded placing the states electorate at greater risks of rogue central governments. This therefore makes the argument for stronger States appear even more plausible.

Firstly, strong state rights governance offers various benefits that may lack when laws are made from the federal government. Many functions that are delegated to the states can best be performed by states since they are smaller to manage compared to management of all states by the federal government. Consequently, policies and laws that are engineered by the state governance are likely to be better implemented at state level compared to nationwide level.

Additionally, by accepting responsibility or setting the laws, state governments can be called to account by the electorate and mostly become the focus of political dissatisfaction when such laws or policies fail. The acceptance of delegated responsibility thus comes with higher expectations from the electorate for the states elected representatives. Strong States bring the government closer to the populace. While an all powerful central authority may contribute to restive and dissatisfied citizens especially due to is remoteness, and facelessness, a strong state allows more direct access to the citizens. Additionally, strong states proximity to the masses contribute to increased participation of the electorate in decision making by increasing the influence of the people on government agencies and policies (Schmidt et al, 2008).

Another reason that States should enjoy wide powers in policy and law formulation decisions with limited interference from the central government is due to the reduced risks inherent in failed policies and laws at state level compared to national level. New government initiatives can be implemented at State level without risk to the wider nation. For instance, a failure of economic policies laws initiated at central government levels may have adverse effects for the entire nation. Similar policies initiated at state level would only be copied by other states if they prove successful thus reducing catastrophic decisions in case of failure. Some historically significant examples of programs that were implemented at state level proving successful include the Wisconsin unemployment compensation program and California air pollution control, laws which have since been implemented by other states (Schmidt et al, 2008).

It is therefore evident that strong states serve some very crucial functions in checking the power of the central government. Its close proximity to the electorate further makes it more responsive to the needs of the population. Additionally, the smaller size of states compared to the nation makes it easier for policies and laws at state level to be more easily implemented compared to the national level. With such evidence, it’s plausible to agree with the views shared by Madison while not entirely discrediting the views held by Elazar.

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