Federalism, a political system which is aimed on establishing a strong central government -which in return is constitutionally mandated to share equal powers with its local and state governments. It sounds straight and simple but some of American history’s most enduring and complicated issues have resulted because of this political concept. Before the passage of the US constitution -there were people at one side of the political confederacy – the pro-nationals, demanding a strong national government as the key answer for bringing America on its feet after its independence from the British while there were some, pro-states- who believed in investing all the powers in the states as the only solution. The American constitution -later adopted by the founders of the country is a blend of these both sides embedded with federalism. Even, after this historical political settlement -there have been US leaders previously and now- who tend to favor and accordingly set their government’s policies either being a pro-national or pro-state. For the purpose of this essay, I will be comparing and contrasting federalism under the administration of specific US presidents -FDR, Nixon, Clinton and Bush.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) came into power during the worst economic crisis-the great depression-in the American history. He expanded the government’s power not just on central level but at municipal, state and local level as well -in order to better handle the loss caused by the great depression. His philosophy was no matter how big a government might get -it should have involvement and be responsible for its citizen’s .Its purpose should be to serve the common man on the street. His government was fundamentally dedicated on creating a political system which is largely focused on the welfare and care of its people; to help them out and pull the country out of this economic mess -where banks, stocks and all other major government financial institutions had collapsed. He formulated a program calling it “the New Deal” which involved on large scale federal-state cooperation in funding and power sharing. He initiated the welfare system, social insurance for the poor, elderly and the unemployed. According to FDR, the only way for the recovery would be if both the central and state governments worked together in joint effort-sharing equal powers. Through this transfer and shuffling of power, he established a system of dual federalism. He is the spearhead of many federal and state run programs that are running in the country today-directly affecting the lives of the millions living in here. I personally feel he was the first one to truly practice federalism in its essence- in his every day policy making and administration while being in power.
When republican president Nixon took office, like many of his successors before and after him-had his own judgment about the division and assigning powers from the high level -national authority to the lower state or local agencies. He adopted a stricter managerial approach in the effort of making the overall governmental system more efficient and competent. He felt that the central government had been encumbered with unnecessary load of power and policy implementation which on the other hand could be carried out much more efficiently at the local government level. He based his administration on a pro-state approach-directing money and power from the central federal government and into the hands of smaller locally and state run agencies. He did this by mandating grants-in-aid into block grants -a devolution- by transferring power from the central side and giving much authority and money to the smaller state run governments. He believed that such a pro-state federalism will serve the community better as the state and local agencies have the easy access and better understanding to reach the areas in need.
Bill Clinton like Nixon had main aim of making the federalist government more competent in nature but had a watchful approach towards granting more power to states. He was well aware of the importance of states having its self-sufficiency and powers but not at the cost of putting the central government at a vulnerable position. He viewed states as laboratories for implementing and experimenting policies passed by the national government. Although, throughout his reign, Clinton mandated strategies that gave more power to states- but ultimately favored devolution targeted towards making the national government stable and strong in nature. Unlike Nixon, Clinton was not in favor of smaller state run federalism.
George Bush like Clinton shared a similar background before becoming the president. Both were governors but Bush era differed from Clinton’s in the way Bush adopted, shifted and granted powers to the states. Bush was an ardent advocate of small pro-state federalist government. Bush reversed Clinton’s proposed policies in regards to making states accountable and liable to the national government- in the matters such as setting national standards and rules for environmental guidelines. Bush made it harder for the central government to overrule and interfere in states decisions .He favored rule implementation by the states and less interference of the central government in the matters of the local government.
The debate over federalism and the choice of being a pro-state or pro-national is an age old argument for our country. Our presidents- past and present – may had differences in political opinion and formulated different policies geared towards handing more power to either states or national level but all shared the same admiration and regard for the government. They all agreed on the vitality and influence of government in a nation. American Federalism- the main idea seeded by the founders of this great nation -is yet to play many roles and touch our lives in many ways in the years to come.