Government, Federal

views updated May 21 2018

Government, Federal




The member states of confederations establish federal governments to concentrate power in a central authority while maintaining the independence of their own governments. Traditionally, the member states of confederations have established federal governments as a means of combining their military and economic resources in response to regional threats and rivalries at the same time as they faced deep-seated ethnic, linguistic, or religious barriers to further national integration. The precise institutional structure that most skillfully juggled those two different sets of demands was difficult to define in theory, much less establish in practice. Centripetal forces within a federal system could produce political conflict among the member states just as easily as centrifugal forces could. Tudor England and the Holy Roman Empire exemplified those two tendencies.

The United States presents a somewhat unique case because at the time the federal government was established its member states were not divided along deep-seated ethnic, linguistic, or religious lines, nor had they enjoyed an independent existence before the establishment of the confederation. The framers of the U.S. Constitution generally agreed on the need to create a stronger federal government than had existed under the Articles of Confederation, but they differed on how much to strengthen it. Surprisingly, convention debates over specific powers were rare, except when they engaged existing interstate cleavages. In particular, the convention debate over a federal commerce power, including the power to regulate the slave trade, was heated because it engaged a number of interstate cleavages, between northern and southern states, between upper-South and lower-South states, between New England and mid-Atlantic states, and between commercial and agrarian states. However, in general the sense of the convention was to strengthen the federal government so that it was structured less like traditional federal governments and more like the national governments of the western European powers, which the delegates viewed as the future military and commercial rivals to their newly independent nation. At the same time, they sought to retain the state governments as viable parts of a new federal system of government, if for no other reason than that the Constitution would not otherwise have been ratified.


After the formation of this new type of half federal, half national system in the United States, some federal systems have been patterned more on this new, U.S. model (Australia) and some have been patterned more on the traditional, confederal model (Nigeria). Other federal systems represent a hybrid of the two models (Germany) or are clearly transitional in character (Russia). The confederal model has tended to be the least stable, though the original reasons for adopting such a model probably explain its instability more than any flaws in the model itself. The interaction between cultural and institutional causes of political instability was apparent in the case of the former Yugoslavia. As the twenty-first century began, there were twenty-five federal nations in the world, ranging in size from India to St. Kitts and Nevis, with a total of approximately 40 percent of the worlds population.

In debating how much to strengthen the federal government, the framers of the U.S. Constitution weighed three separate standards of comparison: prior federal governments, including their own; the western European national governments; and the member-state governments. Similarly, social scientists debate how much the federal government has strengthened its administrative, fiscal, and coercive capacities over the last two centuries relative to each of those three standards of comparison. Generally, they conclude that the federal government has strengthened its capacities, dramatically, as measured against its own earlier permutations, the western European national governments, and the member-state governments. Revisionists then present the glass half-full case. They argue that the nineteenth-century federal government was not as weak as supposed, pointing to such developments as the Federalists establishment of a highly elastic fiscal-military, military-fiscal state during the 1790s, the bureaucratization of the post and land offices during the 1820s and 1830s, and the exponential expansion of military pensioners over the course of the whole century.


One interesting area of recent research examines the ways that indigenous and slave populations affected, both negatively and positively, the development of the federal government. Another area of research explores the ways that governing authority has constantly shifted back and forth across the relatively porous constitutional boundaries between the federal and state governments to create and re-create Morton Grodzinss (1966) marble cake system. A third area of research involves comparative studies of federal systems. The best of these studies not only distinguish federal systems in terms of their different constitutional, legal, and institutional structures but also analyze the fit between those structures and the underlying political culture.

Beginning in the last two decades of the twentieth century Americans have witnessed a reinvigorated debate among their political elites, especially Supreme Court justices, over the constitutional boundaries of their federal system. The significance of this debate, however, pales before the debates over the viability of federal systems as solutions to the deep-seated ethnic, linguistic, and religious divisions in the developing nations of the world as many of these nations continue to struggle with the artificial national boundaries that were imposed on them by their European colonizers. Power sharing between various ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups has become the rhetoric of success in nations as diverse as Iraq and the Sudan. Still, even the process of adopting a mutually acceptable constitution has proven extremely difficult. The federal solution remains available as a way of attempting to translate the rhetoric of power sharing into reality, but it is hardly sufficient as a solution to the multiple challenges these nations face.

SEE ALSO Federalism; Government; State, The


Elazar, Daniel J., comp. and ed. 1994. Federal Systems of the World: A Handbook of Federal, Confederal, and Autonomy Arrangements, 2nd ed. Harlow, U.K.: Longman Current Affairs.

Farrand, Max, ed. 1937 [1911]. The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, 4 vols. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Grodzins, Morton. 1966. The American System: A New View of Government in the United States. Ed. Daniel J. Elazar. Chicago: Rand McNally.

Hamilton, Alexander, James Madison, and John Jay. 1961. The Federalist Papers. Ed. Clinton Rossiter. New York: New American Library.

Kincaid, John, and G. Alan Tarr, eds. 2005. A Global Dialogue on Federalism, Vol. 1: Constitutional Origins, Structure, and Change in Federal Countries. Montreal, Canada: McGill-Queens University Press.

David F. Ericson

Federal Government

views updated May 11 2018


FEDERAL GOVERNMENT is divided into three main branches: the legislative, the judicial, and the executive. These branches have the same basic shape and perform the same basic roles defined for them when the Constitution was written in 1787. Congress, the legislative branch, is divided into two chambers: the Senate and the House of Representatives. Representation in the chambers is carried out by the formula set forth in 1787: by population in the House and by state in the Senate. The president is the elected chief executive officer and is charged with faithful execution of the laws. The Supreme Court and all other federal courts have the judicial authority vested in them by the Constitution and by subsequent legislation. A system of checks and balances prevents power from being concentrated in any one of the three branches. Power is divided on a territorial basis between the states and national government.


During the centuries since the Constitution first defined the federal system, the federal government has grown and evolved in response to social and political events that the members of the original Constitutional Convention could not have anticipated. The federal government's powers have increased in scope, the relationship among the branches of the federal government has changed, and the division of power between the states and the federal government has shifted. Some of these changes have occurred in accordance with the amendment process described in Article V of the Constitution. However, the vast majority of the changes to the federal system have been through such informal means as the use of precedent and the interpretation of the Constitution.

Because of their nature, foreign relations, defense, the monetary system, and foreign and interstate commerce are clearly areas where a national policy is required, and the Constitution grants the federal government the authority to exercise power in these areas. However, other areas once thought to be in the domain of state government or the private sector have become national concerns and have required federal intervention. For example, by extending its right to regulate interstate commerce, the federal government legislated the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906 and created a national standard for the sale and manufacture of these products. In 1954, the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka extended the scope of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to end state systems of segregation. Ten years later the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 further strengthened the federal government's role in providing equal protection as well as in enforcing the Fifteenth Amendment's guarantee of voting rights for citizens of any race or color.

Only twenty-seven amendments have been made to the Constitution in more than 200 years. Still, they have had a significant effect on the federal system. The first ten amendments, ratified in 1791, have become known as the Bill of Rights. They afford such basic civil liberties as freedom of speech and religion. Slavery was abolished with the Thirteenth Amendment. The Fourteenth Amendment strengthened the Bill of Rights by ensuring all citizens' equal protection under the law. The Fifteenth, Nineteenth and Twenty-sixth Amendments extended voting rights to citizens of all colors and races, to women, and to adults 18 years and older, respectively. The Sixteenth Amendment legalized the federal income tax. The Twenty-second and Twenty-fifth Amendments limited a president to two terms in office and established presidential succession. These amendments have brought important changes; nevertheless, how the federal government interprets the Constitution and uses precedent has institutionalized even greater change.

Interpreting Power

Each branch of the federal government shares equally in the power to interpret the Constitution. Congress, for example, has interpreted its power under the commerce clause to establish such regulatory agencies as the Federal Communications Commission, the National Labor Relations Board, and the Securities and Exchange Commission. These regulatory agencies are often viewed as the fourth branch of the federal government because they exercise powers that are legislative, administrative, and judicial. Yet, unlike the three main branches, these agencies were created and given power by ordinary legislation and not by constitutional amendment. Similarly, Congress has used implied power, derived from the Constitution's necessary and proper clause, to regulate such matters as minimum wages, social security, welfare, and Medicare; to prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, religion, sex, or physical handicap in employment, public accommodations, and housing; and to define as federal offenses certain criminal activities carried on across state lines.

The president has interpreted the Constitution by claiming the authority to deal directly with internal and international situations. Through the State of the Union message, the power to veto legislation, and Congress's vesting in the executive branch the responsibility for preparing the annual budget, the president has, in effect, become the chief legislator. The president's role as chief executive officer has been broadened to include the duties of chief peace officer. By claiming constitutional authority, presidents have used U.S. troops, federal marshals, or state national guards to quell labor disputes and racial riots and to ensure national, state, and local security after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.

The Supreme Court has the power to declare whether an act or action of Congress or the executive branch violates the Constitution. In making these decisions it applies the text of the Constitution to the circumstances of the act or action and examines precedent set by past federal laws and previous Court rulings. During its more than 200 years, the Court has had occasion to reverse its own rulings. For example, Brown v. Board of Education overturned the Court's 1896 ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, which allowed separate public facilities based on race. Although the Court cited the Fourteenth Amendment in this reversal, other reversals have been due to the Court's accepting constitutional interpretations rendered by Congress or the president. Unlike the other two branches of the federal government, the Supreme Court has developed the reputation of not involving politics in its decision making process. However, this reputation was severely challenged by the controversy surrounding the Court's actions in the highly contested presidential election of 2000. By stopping the recount of legal votes cast in Florida, the Court's majority of conservative justices appeared to follow their political leanings and favor Republican candidate George W. Bush.

Custom and usage are other means by which the federal government reshapes itself. The frequent use of precedents leads to their becoming institutionalized features of the government, although the Constitution may not explicitly sanction them. Such features include the president's cabinet, political parties and the two-party system, and the president's use of executive agreements in lieu of treaties. Interpretation and precedent are also the bases upon which the president commits troops to hostilities without a formal declaration of war, which requires the approval of Congress. This practice can be traced to U.S. military involvement in the Korean Conflict (1950–1953) and was subsequently used to commit military personnel to combat in Vietnam (1956–1973), the military invasions of Grenada (1983) and Panama (1989), and more recently the U.S. military action in Afghanistan (2001–). This practice has also been extended to using the military to prevent illegal drug trafficking and provide internal security following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.

Late-Twentieth-Century Changes

Because of the federal government's increased role in domestic and foreign affairs, its authority and responsibilities have grown tremendously. This growth is reflected in the number of federal civilian employees, which increased from 239,476 in 1901 to 2,697,602 in 2001. However, only 8 percent of this increase occurred during the past fifty years. This yearly increase of less than .01 percent is indicative of the recent trend to decrease the size and scope of the federal government.

This trend began with the Carter Administration's (1977–1981) deregulation of several key industries such as telecommunications, trucking, and air travel. Because of fiscal and political motives, it continued with following administrations, which among other actions, restructured the federal welfare system by turning most of its administration and funding over to the states. In the 1990s the Supreme Court aggressively pursued a legal agenda that asserted states' rights over federal authority. An example of this agenda was the Court's interpretation of the Eleventh Amendment, which prohibits private individuals from using the federal judiciary to sue a state. In 1990 the Court interpreted the amendment to bar private lawsuits against states that may have violated federal law. To the astonishment of many states' rights advocates, the Court extended this interpretation in 2002 to bar federal regulatory agencies from suing states on behalf of private individuals, although the federal government clearly has the right to sue a state. Many legal experts believe that this ruling will impede the federal government from effectively enforcing its regulations on a broad range of issues from environmental protection to worker safety.


DeGregorio, William A. The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents. Ft. Lee, N.J.: Barricade Books, 2001.

Lieberman, Jethro K. A Practical Companion to the Constitution. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

Mayhew, David R. America's Congress. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000.

P. AllanDionisopoulos


About this article

federal government

All Sources -
Updated Aug 24 2016 About content Print Topic


federal government