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Cooperative Federalism

Last Updated: 2006

Cooperative federalism is a model of intergovernmental relations that recognizes the overlapping functions of the national and state governments. This model can be contrasted with the model of dual federalism, which maintains that the national and state governments have distinct and separate government functions.

In general, cooperative federalism asserts that governmental power is not concentrated at any governmental level or in any agency. Instead, the national and state governments share power. For instance, bureaucratic agencies at the national and state level normally carry out governmental programs jointly. Because the governments’ responsibilities are split between many levels of government, citizens and organized interests have many access points to influence public policy.

The constitutional foundations of the cooperative model of federalism are threefold. First, the proponents of cooperative federalism rely on a broad interpretation of the Supremacy Clause (Article VI) of the Constitution. Second, they contend that the Necessary and Proper Clause (Article 1, Section 8), also known as the Elastic Clause, allows the national government to make laws that are essential to carrying out the government’s inherent powers. Finally, they hold a narrow interpretation of the Tenth Amendment.

Although the term “cooperative federalism” was originated in the 1930’s, the roots of cooperative federalism reach back to the administration of Thomas Jefferson. During the nineteenth century, the national government used land grants to support a variety of state governmental programs such as higher education, veterans’ benefits, and transportation infrastructure. The Swamp Lands Acts of 1849, 1850, and 1860 are a prime example of this strategy. Under the various versions of this law, Congress ceded millions of acres of federal wetlands to 15 interior and coastal states. The acreage was “reclaimed” (i.e., drained) by the states and sold, with the profits being used to fund flood control. This strategy was later used in the Morrill Act of 1862, which gave land grants to the states to help fund the creation of state colleges.

The model of cooperative federalism was expanded during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. The influence of the national government over social welfare policies continued after World War II and into the 1960’s when Lyndon B. Johnson declared his War on Poverty. Johnson’s efforts to expand this safety net are often referred to as “creative federalism.”

A “rights revolution” during the late 1960’s and 1970’s extended the idea of cooperative federalism as the national government became involved in issues such as the environment, job safety, mental health, education, and the rights of disabled individuals. As the national government shaped new public policies to deal with these issues, it relied on the states to implement a wide array of federally imposed mandates.

The modern view of cooperative federalism is very different than the model used in the nineteenth century. In the 1970’s, federal mandates became more exacting and binding, and no longer emphasize unconditional assistance to the states. The national government also provided deadlines for compliance and could penalize the states for failing to meet them.

Some political scientists have a stricter interpretation of cooperative federalism. John Kincaid, for instance, has designated the time period of 1954–78 as the time frame for cooperative federalism in the United States. Since the late 1970’s, there has been a swing toward the model of dual federalism, especially during Ronald Reagan’s administration.

SEE ALSO: Coercive FederalismCreative FederalismDual FederalismMarble Cake FederalismNew Federalism (Reagan)


Russell Hanson, “Intergovernmental Relations,” in Politics in the American States: A Comparative Analysis, 7th ed., ed. Virginia Gray, Russell L. Hanson, and Herbert Jacob (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 1999); John Kincaid, “From Cooperative to Coercive Federalism,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 509 (May 1990): 139–52; and Marc Landy and Sidney M. Milkis, American Government: Balancing Democracy and Rights (Boston: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2004).