While there has been little argument that the United States operates in a federal system—one where the powers of government are divided between the federal government and the states—the understanding of the nature and scope of that interaction has changed and evolved over time. Much of the study of federalism is concerned with understanding the different views of how the interaction occurs and the rules that govern the relationship.
Prior to the 1930’s, the popular conception of federalism was one where the roles of the federal and state governments were separate, distinct, and within their own spheres. This was referred to as “dual federalism” and was analogous to each government having its own layer, or sovereignty, in the larger system symbolized by a cake. Because of the analogy, the concept was referred to as “layer cake federalism” and rested on the proposition that federal and state governments have separate functions.
The primary source for this construct was the U.S. Constitution, which set forth a formal division of powers. Both state governments and the federal government derive their authority from the dictates of the Constitution, which separated out the governing powers and responsibilities. With each government having its own responsibilities, federalism was most easily understood in terms of these separate layers.
Yet, despite this simple conception of the workings of the federal system, in practice, the process of defining and delineating the scope of each government’s authority into separate distinct and observable spheres or layers proved problematic. While it presented a clear and direct image of a federal system, layer cake federalism failed to describe the nature of governmental relationships in a society where government functions grew, expanded, and overlapped in unpredictable ways. Since both the federal government and the state government have their own sovereignty, they can often conflict with each other in a number of areas, including taxation, regulation, or law enforcement. The separate layers proved to be not as separate as they appeared.
In 1960, Morton Grodzins presented a new, more dynamic means to conceptualize the federal system. Grodzins suggested that the relationship between governments was not described by insulated layers or spheres, and suggested a new image. He proposed “marble cake federalism,” a term first coined by Joseph E. McLean, as an attempt to view federalism in a more complex and interactive setting. It is a view of federalism that seeks to understand the relationship between the federal and state governments as one in which all jurisdictions of government are involved in various issues and policies rather than having formal lines of division. Layer cake federalism remains a useful means to explain the initial conceptual divisions in our federal system, especially in the infancy of the American constitutional system. Nonetheless, it is a limiting and restrictive view when understood against the more modern American political reality.
Morton Grodzins, “The Federal System,” in Goals for Americans (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1960).