The NCSL Blog


By Kevin Frazzini

Who calls the shots, the states or the federal government?

State Legislatures magazine cover July 2017The answer, according to the U.S. Constitution, is both—it just depends on the duty or power in question. Minting money, regulating interstate commerce and protecting the borders are a few of the federal government’s responsibilities. Regulating trade within a state and conducting elections are state duties.

It’s not always so cut and dried, of course, which is why we still debate how federalism—our unique system of shared state-federal authority—should work. This month, State Legislatures magazine celebrates American federalism with three stories coming at the topic in different ways.

In “The State of Federalism,” NCSL Executive Director Bill Pound offers a historical perspective.

“The framers anticipated that states would be the principal policymakers in a system that granted limited power to the federal government,” he writes. Since the Constitution was ratified, however, the balance of power has tilted from the states to the feds and back again depending on the economy and congressional and executive priorities, among other factors.

“Congress and the federal executive branch have often ignored state concerns,” Pound writes, “and enacted laws and rules that preempt state laws, put undue burdens on state finances, or are difficult and burdensome to implement.”

For a look at federalism in action, turn to our update from NCSL’s Washington, D.C., office, which is working on behalf of the states to stop the federal “No Regulation Without Representation Act.” The measure, currently in a House subcommittee, would pre-empt state authority and prevent states from collecting sales tax from online sellers located outside a state’s borders.

Finally, for a leadership perspective, read our Q&A with Senator Dan Blue, Democratic leader in North Carolina and former NCSL president, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, Republican of Wisconsin.

The two represent very different states, but each attributes the success of American federalism to the Founding Fathers. “They designed a system where there is natural tension,” Vos said, “between folks who want to have decisions made closer to home in state governments and the necessity to have decisions made on a broader basis when they impact the entire country.”

And, at least where balance of power is concerned, “Tension is a good thing,” as Blue put it.

Kevin Frazzini is the assistant editor of NCSL’s State Legislatures magazine.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.