You may have heard the term “federalism” from time to time over the years. But what does it mean?
Well, federalism, unlike democracy, is the foundation of the governmental structure of the United States. Federalism is a system of government in which a written constitution divides power between a central government and regional or sub-divisional governments (states).
Federalism can be seen as a compromise between the extreme concentration of power and a loose confederation of independent states for governing a variety of people in a large diverse country. Federalism has the virtue of retaining local pride, traditions and power, while allowing a central government that can handle problems of common welfare such as military preparedness.
The basic principle of American federalism is outlined in the 10th Amendment to the Constitution which states: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
Unfortunately, this division of power has eroded over the years so that today the federal government has functions that have been greatly extended and touch on nearly all aspects of life for American citizens.
Education, marriage, and health care are just a few examples of federal encroachment on what used to be matters for the states to control.
The importance of the American states as legal entities is considerable.
Today, most of the civil and criminal laws that govern Americans’ lives are state laws. State law also covers family law, traffic law and commercial law. The most obvious example of a state’s right to implement laws for itself is the right a state has to either have or not to have the death penalty for convicted murderers.
However, an interesting idea has caught on within the conservative community that is gaining support across the country; repealing the 17th Amendment.
Ratified during the Progressive Era in 1913, the 17th Amendment gave voters the power to elect U.S. senators directly.
Before that, senators were generally selected by state legislatures. The original Constitution gave state governments a strong voice in the national government by requiring them to select U.S. Senators to serve much like ambassadors today at the United Nations.
This provided for the Congress to be a political venue for the competition between state government interests and national government interests. The Senate provided the state governments the necessary ability to restrict the natural inclination of the national government to expand its power.
It is no coincidence that the national government began its exponential growth following the passage of the 17th Amendment, just as soon as there was no longer a competing interest that could stop it.
Returning that authority to the states would give them much more sway in Washington, restoring their role as a check on federal expansion.
The 17th Amendment was one of several innovations during the Progressive Era meant to promote direct democracy.
The idea was to circumvent the stranglehold that various monopolies and oligarchies had on state officials of the day.
But taking away the influence state governments had in Washington, the states dealt a “critical blow” to the federalist system, popular conservative talk radio host Mark Levin argues in his book The Liberty Amendments: Restoring the American Republic.
“Providing the state governments with direct input in the national government was not only an essential check on the federal government’s power, but also a means by which the states could influence congressional lawmaking,” Levin writes.
However, repealing the 17th Amendment would be a tough sell on the American public. Even though its repeal would be a huge leap toward the federalist system that our Founders envisioned, on its face, repealing the 17th would appear to many people that it would take power away from the individual voter.