Republican Self-Governance Essay Series
THE COMPOUND REPUBLIC: FEDERALISM
The Current Status of Federalism
Ginger Deegear - New Revolution Now Contributor
Challenges to the federal principle of the compound republic in which power was divided between two relatively equal governments, each sovereign within its own sphere began almost immediately within in the Supreme Court under John Marshall. The power of the national government was gradually expanded through decisions concerning the Constitution’s Commerce and “Necessary and Proper” clauses (Article 1) and the “Supremacy” clause (Article 6). The states generally held their own, however, as co-equal parties in the compound republic until the Civil War which established the primacy of the sovereignty of the national government over the states which has lasted until the present.
Major milestones in the accretion of power by the national government after the Civil War, all of which have served to impair the workings of federalism, include: the passage in 1913 of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth amendments establishing the income tax and the requiring the direct election of Senators by popular vote; the assumption of an expansive role in economic, military, regulatory, employment and welfare policy (including the establishment of the Social Security program) in response to the great depression and the demands of World War II; and the creation of a myriad of new federal responsibilities through Congressional legislation concerning civil rights, the environment, health care (Medicare and Medicaid), transportation and education beginning in 1950’s and 1960’s. Over this period, the Supreme Court generally supported the assumption of power by the national government with this trend culminating in a decision in 1985 (Garcia V. San Antonio Municipal Transit Authority) which recognized virtually no limits on Congress’s power under the Commerce clause.
For the past several decades, state governments have assumed the role of “junior partner” in the federal relationship. They are increasingly relegated to the role of carrying out Congressional mandates, frequently unfunded, becoming in essence an administrative arm of the national government. They are preempted in many cases by Congress’s designation that certain programs must be administered directly by local governments and organizations. The states are not serving as an effective check against the abuse of power by the national government and neither are they standing as a buffer between an overweening national government and individual citizens as intended by the federal system of the compound republic.
Not only have states been demoted under our increasingly centralized political regime, citizens too have been sidelined when it comes to participation in governance. The interest group politics that underlies the modern Congressional process pits groups of citizens against each other in a contest for governmental favors and benefits and works to undermine the traditional practice of citizenship which requires citizens to deliberate together concerning the common good. Indeed, according to the analysis of Matthew Crenson and Benjamin Ginsberg in their book, Downsizing Democracy, what we now call the special interest state has just about done away with the need for citizens entirely. “The era of the citizen is coming to an end. Today, Western governments have found ways of raising armies, collecting taxes, and administering programs that do not require much involvement on the part of ordinary citizens... political elites have substantially marginalized the American mass electorate and have come to rely more and more on the courts and the bureaucracy to get what they want.”
Republican political theory since the time of the Greek polis has focused on the societal norms and individual characteristics required for self-governance including: emphasis on civic virtue, duty and self-reliance, citizen participation in governance and resistance to corruption and tyranny. Jefferson, the founder most concerned with adherence to republican ideals, believed very much in individual rights (the lack of a bill of rights was one of his few criticisms of the proposed constitution) but he also believed that citizens must secure these rights by the performance of their duties. The federalism of the compound republic of the constitution gave scope to these concerns by establishing multiple access points for citizens to use in seeking redress of grievances at the state and national level as well as opportunities for participating in local self-government. The highly centralized and virtually unlimited central government under which we now live provides few of these opportunities for citizens to have an effective voice in governance resulting in a growing dissatisfaction with government and sense of alienation.
In a letter to Edward Everitt in 1824 James Madison notes that “the qualifications for self-government in society are not innate. They are the result of habit and long training.” A self-governing nation requires self-governing citizens. Without the experience and attitudes derived from active participation in governance – of ruling and being ruled in turn as explained by Aristotle -- a people cannot maintain their competence for republican citizenship. The founder’s design of the federal system of the compound republic is a fundamental and necessary safeguard to citizens and, if we are to remain self-governing people, we must find ways to restore this principle to its central place in our political system.
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