State Power and Delegation


Throughout U.S. history, the national and state governments have battled for dominance over the implementation of public policy and the funding of important political programs. Upon taking office in 1933 during the Great Depression (1929–1939), President Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated a series of legislative proposals to boost the economy and put people back to work. The enacted programs allowed the federal government to play a broader role in revitalizing the economy while greatly expanding its power. However, this result was not without its critics. Initially, the Supreme Court overturned several key legislative proposals passed under Roosevelt, reasoning that they represented an overreach of presidential authority and were unconstitutional, such as Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States.A. L. A. Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States, 295 U.S. 495 (1935). Eventually, however, the Supreme Court shifted direction to reflect public opinion, which was decisively behind the president and the need for government intervention in a time of economic turmoil.William E. Leuchtenburg, “When Franklin Roosevelt Clashed with the Supreme Court—and Lost,” Smithsonian Magazine, May 2005.

Just three decades later, during the 1964 presidential election campaign, incumbent President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a “War on Poverty,” instituting a package of Great Society programs designed to improve circumstances for lower-income Americans across the nation. The new programs included Medicare and Medicaid, which are health insurance programs for seniors and low-income citizens respectively, and the food stamp program, which provides food assistance to low-income families. These initiatives greatly expanded the role of the federal government in providing a social safety net.Karen Tumulty, “‘Great Society’ Agenda Led to Great—and Lasting—Philosophical Divide,” Washington Post, 8 January 2014. State and local governments became partners in their implementation and also came to rely on the financial support they received from the federal government in the form of program grants.Michael Schuyler. 19 February 2014. “A Short History of Government Taxing and Spending in the United States,”

As the federal government’s role in policy creation expanded, so did its level of spending. Spending by the federal government began to surpass that of state and local governments shortly after 1940 (Figure). It spiked temporarily during the Great Depression and again during World War II, resuming a slow climb with the implementation of Johnson’s Great Society programs noted above.

A graph titled “Federal Spending vs. State and Local Spending”. The x-axis of the graph is labeled “Year” and reads from left to right “1930”, “1940”, “1950”, “1960”, “1970”, “1980”, “1990”, “2000”, and “2010”. The y-axis is labeled “Expenditure as percent of GDP” and reads from bottom to top “5.00%”, “10.00%”, “15.00%”, “20.00%”, “25.00%”, “30.00%”, “35.00%”, “40.00%”, and “45.00%”. A line labeled “Federal” starts around 4% in 1930, rises to around 10% in 1940, rises sharply to around 40% around 1945, drops sharply to around 15% in 1960, increases to around 20% in 1970, increases to around 23% in 1980, decreases to around 19% in 200, and increases to around 25% in 2010. A line labeled “State” starts around 10% in 1930, rises to around 11% then drops back to around 10% in 1940, drops to around 5% then rises to around 8% in 1950, rises to around 10% in 1960, rises to around 13% in 1970, rises to around 14% then drops back around 13% in 1980, maintains around 13% in 1990, rises to around 14% in 2000, and rises to around 16% in 2010. At the bottom of the graph a source is cited: “U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. NIPA table 1.1.5: “Gross Domestic Product.” December 20, 2013. NIPA Table 3.2: “Federal Government Current Receipts and Expenditures.” November 11, 2015. NIPA Table 3.3: “State and Local Government Current Receipts and Expenditures.” November 11, 2015.”
After spiking during World War II, spending by the federal government has consistently exceeded that of state and local governments. Between 2000 and 2010, the gap between federal and state spending steadily widened.

Growing financial resources gave the federal government increased power over subnational governments. This increased power was because it could use categorical grants to dictate the terms and conditions state governments had to meet to qualify for financial assistance in a specific policy area. Over time, the federal government even began to require state and local governments to comply with legislative and executive authorizations when funding was not attached. These requests from the federal government are referred to as unfunded mandates and are a source of dissatisfaction to political actors at the state and local level. To provide more transparency to state and local governments and reduce the federal government’s use of mandates, the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act was passed in 1995. This act requires the Congressional Budget Office to provide information about the cost of any proposed government mandate that exceeds a specified threshold before the bill can be considered in Congress.Philip Joyce, “Is the Era of Unfunded Federal Mandates Over?” Governing, 16 April 2014.

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Explore the latest news on federal mandates at the Congressional Budget Office and the Catalog of Cost Shifts to States at the National Conference of State Legislatures website.

Despite the national government’s power to pass and fund policy that affects lower-level governments, states still have gained considerable headway since the late twentieth century. For instance, with the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act in 1996, known as the welfare reform bill, states were given great discretion over the provision of welfare. The federal government reduced its level of monetary support for the program and, in exchange, the states gained more authority over its implementation. States were able to set more restrictive work requirements, to place caps on the number of family members who could receive aid, and to limit the length of time someone could qualify for government assistance.“State Policy Choices under Welfare Reform,” (March 14, 2016).

Since then, states have been granted the flexibility to set policy across a number of controversial policy areas. For instance, a wide array of states require parental consent for abortions performed on minors, set waiting periods before an abortion can be performed, or require patients to undergo an ultrasound before the procedure. As another example, currently, almost half the states allow for the use of medical marijuana and three states have fully legalized it, despite the fact that this practice stands in contradiction to federal law that prohibits the use and distribution of marijuana.

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For more on these two controversial policy areas, explore ”An Overview of State Abortion Laws” and ”State Medical Marijuana Laws.”

Today, it is not uncommon to see a patchwork of legal decisions granting states more discretion in some policy areas, such as marijuana use, while providing the federal government more authority in others, such as same-sex marriage. Decisions about which level controls policy can reflect the attitudes of government officials and the public, political ideology and the strategic advantage of setting policy on a state-by-state basis, and the necessity of setting uniform policy in the face of an economic downturn or unanticipated national security threat. What has not changed over time is the central role of the U.S. Supreme Court’s views in determining how power should be distributed in a federalist system.