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Federal-State Relations

Last Updated: 2018

Federal-State relations have many facets, from legal and financial to political, and have varied from cordial to combative. This entry examines the constitutional clauses structuring the federal-state relationship, some of which are not very clear and some have been the basis for major controversies over the years.

Additional insight into the federal-state relationship can be gained by clicking the hyperlinks in this entry and the topics at the end of this entry.

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The Constitution provides the states a number of guarantees. The national government cannot impose a tax or duty on any state’s exports, grant preferences to the ports of one state over those of another, or require ships heading toward or away from one state to clear or pay duties at another port (Article I, Section 9). States cannot be divided or merged without the consent of the state legislature(s) involved (Article IV, Section 3), and no state can be deprived of equal representation in the U.S. Senate without the state’s consent (Article V).

All states are guaranteed protection against invasion and, at the request of the governor or legislature, against domestic disorder (Article IV, Section 4). The national government apparently has the authority to intervene even without the governor or legislature’s request in order to enforce national laws, protect federal property, or protect the country. That same section guarantees each state a republican form of government, a provision that is subject to various interpretations. The federal courts have been reluctant to hear cases regarding that matter since the mid-1800s. Apparently the guarantee of a republican form of government does not prohibit the states from allowing citizens to vote on public policy issues, a practice that more resembles direct democracy than a republic (which usually emphasizes representative democracy).

The Second Amendment to the Constitution protects each state’s right to have a militia, a provision that is more often discussed in cases regarding gun control laws than cases involving state militias. The Eleventh Amendment gives each state immunity from lawsuits in federal courts if the suit is brought by a resident of another state or country unless the state agrees to the suit. Since the mid-1990s, several Supreme Court rulings overturned suits against state governments, even if the state government had been accused of violating federal law. However, the Court has not been consistent in that view. It was willing to hear cases brought by the George W. Bush campaign during the dispute over the 2000 presidential election in Florida and upheld the right of people to sue state governments regarding violations of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA; see Davis and Peltason 2004, 372–74).


Several constitutional provisions regulate or limit state authority in various ways (see Article I, Section 10). The states may not adopt treaties or other international agreements, although they may work to attract foreign firms to locate or invest in the state and to encourage other countries to permit more imports of the state’s products. The states may not tax imports or exports without the approval of Congress, and they may not coin their own money. States are prohibited from impairing the obligations of contracts, but that provision does not ban all types of state regulation of business activity.

Article I, Section 10, also prohibits states from adopting bills of attainder (which punish particular people without a trial) and ex post facto laws (which make an action illegal after it took place). The Reconstruction Amendments (Thirteenth through Fifteenth) limit state authority in a number of ways. The Thirteenth Amendment bans slavery. The Fourteenth Amendment prohibits the states from abridging citizens’ privileges and immunities, and it provides that no state could deprive anyone of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. It also prohibits the states from denying anyone equal protection under the law. These provisions have been the subject of numerous controversies. The Fifteenth Amendment proclaims that the right to vote may not be denied or abridged because of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. After Reconstruction ended, however, the national government conspicuously failed to enforce all the Reconstruction amendment for many years. Manipulation of the legal processes and widespread denial of African Americans’ voting rights resulted until the 1960s, when the national government began protecting voting and other civil rights more effectively.

Several later amendments also dealt with voting rights. The Nineteenth Amendment gave women the right to vote, and the Twenty-sixth Amendment gave 18-to-20-year-olds the same right. The Twenty-fourth Amendment banned poll taxes as a requirement for voting in federal elections, and the Supreme Court subsequently extended that protection to voting in all state and local elections, a decision that was based on the equal protection provision of the Fourteenth Amendment.


Some constitutional provisions have been sources of major controversies in federal-state relations. Article I, Section 8, gives Congress very broad authority to raise and spend money. Since the 1930s, the courts have generally held that this power enables Congress to attach rules and regulations to federal funds in order to influence state and local government actions, even if Congress lacks the constitutional authority to regulate those same actions.

That same section gives Congress the authority to regulate interstate commerce, but the extent of that authority has provoked considerable debate. The federal courts have sometimes allowed a very broad interpretation of the commerce power by upholding federal law regulating a variety of activities that could affect interstate commerce. However, the courts have sometimes taken a narrower view of the commerce power. In several recent cases, the Supreme Court struck down provisions of federal gun laws and the Violence against Women Act. Part of the justification for those decisions was the assertion that the matters addressed in those laws did not seem adequately related to interstate commerce, though these decisions were narrowly decided.

The rapid growth of Internet commerce produced conflicts over taxation, because many state and local governments were unable to collect sales taxes on Internet sales due to a Supreme Court decision in Quill Corp. v. North Dakota (1992). This created a disadvantage to brick and mortar stores that did collect sales taxes in most states. In South Dakota vs. Wayfair, Inc. (2018), the Supreme Court overturned Quill and states can now collect sales taxes on Internet sales.

Additional controversies have erupted over the Necessary and Proper Clause (at the end of Article I, Section 8), which gives Congress the authority to make laws in order to execute the various responsibilities granted to the national government. Some commentators think this clause should be interpreted narrowly, with “necessary and proper” translated as “essential” or “indispensable.” Others prefer a broader interpretation, contending that the provision includes actions that are helpful or convenient for implementing the delegated powers, not just essential actions.

The Constitution’s Supremacy Clause (Article VI, Section 2) provides that the Constitution, along with the laws and treaties made under its authority, are the supreme law of the land. Although this provision seems fairly clear at first glance, there have sometimes been disputes over whether specific national government actions have exceeded constitutional authority. Acts of Congress, for example, are part of the supreme law of the land only if they are consistent with the Constitution. The Tenth Amendment, which states that powers not delegated to the national government and not denied to states belong to the states or to the people, has also provoked controversies. Its meaning depends a great deal on how broadly the national government’s powers are interpreted.


From the mid-1930s through the mid-1990s, the Supreme Court accepted a relatively broad interpretation of the national government’s powers. The Court played important leadership roles in establishing national policies regarding racial segregation, the rights of criminal suspects, and abortion. All of those actions provoked criticism that the Court had exceeded its authority, and some critics complained that the Court was promoting national government expansion at the expense of the states. At the same time, state governments became increasingly active in many domestic policy issues, including education, welfare, health care, and transportation.

During this period, the White House and Congress supported expanding the national government’s role in domestic policy making, although the nature and extent of that support varied considerably. Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson pushed for the most expansive changes, but many other presidents also helped foster a more active national government in domestic policy. President George W. Bush, who in many respects was quite conservative, helped expand the national government’s involvement in education and in a variety of programs related to homeland security. He advocated tighter federal control over some welfare policies, and he called for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages, in spite of the fact that family law has traditionally been a state responsibility.


It is difficult to find a series of events that have tested American federalism more than the fight for racial equality. From the nation’s very beginnings to the work of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and on to the present day, the fight over racial equality shows the abilities and shortcomings of the federal system to address controversy, manage conflict, and how changing the scope of conflict can induce changes within the system itself. The scope of conflict includes the size and location of a political conflict, the level(s) of government involved, the branch(es) of government involved, and the political groups involved.

Slavery caused many political conflicts and required a terrible civil war to resolve. Underlying the conflict over slavery was questions about the rights of man, to whom those rights apply and to whom they can be denied, which level of government protects those rights, and whether one government can intercede in the affairs of another. From the Constitutional Convention of 1787 to 1860, the southern, proslavery states successfully fought off challenges to shift authority over slavery and the protection of individual rights from the states to the federal government.

During the framing of the Constitution, a controversy arose over how slaves should be counted for the purposes of congressional apportionment and taxation. The slave states wanted slaves to count as full human beings for congressional apportionment, but not to count as part of the state’s human population when it came to matters of taxation. The free states favored the opposite. A compromise was agreed to in which each slave was counted as three-fifths of a human being for both purposes. This was changed in 1868 by section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Another provision of the Constitution prohibited Congress from stopping slave importation until 1808 (Article I, Section 9). This allowed the states to determine the regulations and laws overseeing slave importation for two decades. Though the Constitution never uses the term “slave,” these two provisions allow slavery to continue. In scope-of-conflict terms, the Constitution allowed slavery to continue in order to secure the slave states’ approval for the Constitution.

In the following decades, an equal number of slave and free states ensured a numerical balance in the United States Senate. This balance was threatened by Missouri’s application for admission to the union as a slave state in 1819. If accepted, Missouri would have given the slave states a decided advantage in Congress. The Missouri Compromise admitted Missouri (as a slave state) and Maine (as a free state) thus maintaining numerical balance and addressing the immediate problem without any true resolution of the issue.

At this time, the scope of conflict remained primarily within the purview of the states; the legal rights of African Americans depended (for the most part) on the individual actions of the state in question. Later compromises relied in part on local preferences regarding slavery. Territorial governments in Utah and New Mexico were organized without reference to slavery (1850). The Kansas-Nebraska Act also relied on local preferences six years later. This transference from the national to the state government, with the federal government deciding “not to decide,” would be the standard solution to the issue of slave versus free state for years to come.

The scope of conflict shifted out of the legislature and into the judiciary when the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857). Dred Scott was a slave who had traveled with his “master” through a territory that was governed as a free, non-slave jurisdiction. Years later, Dred Scott claimed his rights to freedom based on that jurisdiction’s statute. The Supreme Court decided that the statute establishing the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional; most of the justices held that Congress did not have the authority to prohibit slavery in U.S. territories and that a segment of human beings were nothing more than property. The Court also ruled that slaves could not be citizens and were not entitled to any constitutional protection of their rights. In scope-of-conflict terms, the battle went from the states to the Supreme Court, who proceeded to send the issue back to the states and territories.

These compromises and court decision ultimately failed, and the issue was decided on the Civil War battlefields. Following the Union’s victory, the nation adopted the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, thereby abolishing slavery, prohibited denying suffrage based on race, and guaranting all citizens privileges and immunities and due process of law. These amendments appeared to shift the scope of conflict and give the national government control of these issues. Yet, that did not last long. After Reconstruction the scope of conflict for determining civil rights resided with the states for nearly a century.

In Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the Supreme Court determined that the Fourteenth Amendment made all equal in the eyes of the law, but not in social situations. The Court determined that segregation was legal as long as the accommodations (be they schools, restroom facilities, etc.) were “separate, but equal.” They were in fact separate, but rarely (if ever) equal. From a scope-of-conflict viewpoint, the Supreme Court decided that the national government would not resolve social inequality and left the matter in the hands of the individual state governments. Whether and how the states implemented “separate, but equal” became a matter for the states.

Following the Great Depression and election of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the States saw a more activist national government with the introduction of Roosevelt’s New Deal. As the federal government addressed problems of social inequity, the Supreme Court justices shifted their paradigm and allowed the national government to address individual suffering from social problems. While the “separate, but equal” concept was not overturned at this time, the question of whether “equal” really meant that the implementation was “equal” (i.e., new textbooks in a white school would mean the same new textbooks at the black school) was considered but rejected.

Major change did not come until the 1950s when, in Brown v. Board of Education(1954), the Court acknowledged the unfairness found within “separate, but equal.” The Court ruled that racial segregation in educational institutions was in fact unconstitutional and that the process of desegregation was to occur “with all deliberate speed.” At this point, the scope of conflict appeared to have shifted from the states to the national government, yet another scope-of-conflict issue arose over what “deliberate speed” really meant. To the southern states, it could take a long time. By 1964, only 2 percent of black children in southern schools were attending an integrated facility.

Voting was another issue. Poll taxes, grandfather clauses, and literacy tests were all used to keep segments of the population from voting. These “implementation problems” were addressed in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which instructed the U.S. Attorney General to abolish literacy tests under certain circumstances and send in national workers to register voters under simplified structures. Even so, certain southern states still found ways to circumvent the intent of the federal legislation. Recently Shelby County v. Holder (2013) examined provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and voided most of the protections found in Section 4(b) and 5, which required some states to obtain pre-clearances from the Federal Government before making changes to voting laws or regulations.

Southern states found additional ways to thwart efforts to provide equality between the races. Through the process of racial gerrymandering, the State of Mississippi was able to fragment the black voting population in such a way that black majorities were not able to elect a black member of Congress until 1986. This serves as another clear lesson that in a federal system, there are many different levels and institutions where political conflicts may be fought. Who controls the debate and determines the outcome is often determined by where the scope of conflict is located.

In recent years, federal-state conflicts have been largely partisan. During the Obama Administration, Republican state attorneys general sued the Administration in efforts to block a number of its initiatives but those initiatives were largely supported by Democratic controlled states. When the Obama Administration tried to expand Medicaid coverage, many Republican-controlled states declined to participate in the expansion. After the election of President Donald Trump, the situation reversed and many Republican-controlled states adopted the initiatives but Democratic state and local officials challenge Trump Administration policies, from immigration to environmental protection, via lawsuits, laws, and implementation ambiguities.


Despite the conflicts, there is a considerable and significant cooperative activities between the national and state governments. These acts of cooperation are not necessarily evident in any legislation or constitutional provision, but are implemented through less formal, friendly contacts. Letters of concern, e-mails, and text messages all allow players at different levels and branches of government to work out concerns and ideas through an informal network that has the features of flexibility and quickness—elements that are not found as often in more formalistic aspects of the federal-state governments relations. This communication between actors on different levels and in different branches of government also creates the opportunity for technical assistance throughout the various stages of policy making and implementation. Should one branch or level of government have experience in a certain activity, this knowledge base can be used by less experienced actors.

An example of cooperation between federal-state governments is emergency assistance. During times of disaster (such as floods and earthquakes), the interactions between different levels of government can mean the difference, literally, between life and death. Military forces can be used during times of severe unrest to keep order for short periods of time, forest service resources can be dispatched to local entities during times of fires, and communication equipment can be lent out to localities lacking resources. While cooperation can occur between different levels and branches of government, it does not necessarily insure that there will be no conflict. National officials may be hesitant to involve troops when the possibility of injury and death to civilians might bring about negative public opinion—though doing nothing also runs that risk as well. Another example of cooperation between the different levels of government would be sharing the operations of a governmental venture. While the states have a law enforcement function, the national government has a law enforcement role as well, which can result in joint operations and task forces to reduce crime.

In the legislative arena, supporting legislation is yet another example of cooperation between national and state governments. While a state can make a good or activity illegal within its borders, if the good or activity can easily flow across the border the law is less effective. Using supporting legislation from the national government can extend the reach of the state’s law into other jurisdictions, allowing its policies to potentially have more strength. This is evident when we examine cybersecurity threats (including Russian interference with the 2016 election) against voting systems that are decentralized and administered by state and local officials.

When a program is implemented by only one level of government, that level of government has all of the responsibility for the success (or failure) of the program. When a program’s implementation is a shared venture, then responsibility and accountability may be obscured. Yet, sharing the costs for an expensive program or initiative can make the difference between the success and failure of the program itself.

The federalism literature portrays the relationship between the national government and the states in many different ways. Some observers are impressed by the combative nature of federal-state relations; many discussions of mandates follow that theme. In a related vein, some analysts emphasize the national government’s use of coercive measures to pressure state officials to follow national policies.

Other observers see the federal-state relationship as more cooperative, at least most of the time (see Grodzins 1984). When disagreements do arise, they are may be resolved by bargaining and negotiations. To take one recent example, the nationwide 55 miles per hour speed limit initially suggested a national government imposing its will on the states. Before long, however, reports revealed that some states were doing little to enforce the limit. Although national officials initially tried to encourage greater compliance, the limit was progressively watered down and then repealed altogether. The final outcome indicated that the states are far from helpless when disagreements do arise.

SEE ALSO: AbortionAmerican SystemBrown v. Board of EducationCivil Rights Act of 1875Civil Rights Act of 1964Civil WarConstitutional Convention of 1787Crosscutting RequirementsCrossover SanctionsDred Scott v. SandfordEducationElectionsFederal CourtsFifteenth AmendmentFourteenth AmendmentHealth Care PolicyIntergovernmental RelationsInterstate CommerceJohnson, Lyndon B.Local GovernmentMissouri Compromise of 1820Necessary and Proper ClauseNew DealPlessy v. FergusonPrivileges and Immunities Clause: Article IVPrivileges and Immunities Clause: Fourteenth AmendmentReconstructionSlaverySupremacy Clause: Article VI, Clause 2Tenth AmendmentTransportation PolicyUnfunded MandatesVoting Rights Act of 1965


Kimberly Amadeo, The Ultimate Obamacare Handbook (New York: Skyhorse, 2015); Sue Davis and J. W. Peltason, Understanding the Constitution, 16th ed. (Belmont, CA:Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2004); Elizabeth Fredericksen, Stephanie Witt, and David Nice, The Politics of Intergovernmental Relations (San Diego: Birkdale, 2016); Morton Grodzins, The American System (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1984).; David Nice and Patrick Fisher, Public Budgeting, 2nd ed. (San Diego, Birkdale, 2016); C. Herman Prichett, The American Constitution, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1977); Sophie Quinton, “States Sue Trump Administration Over Auto Emissions Standards,” Stateline, May 2, 2018; David Robertson, Federalism and the Making of America (New York: Taylor and Francis, 2012); Slavery by Another Name (Boston: TPT National Productions, 2012); and Joseph Zimmerman, Contemporary American Federalism, 2nd ed. (Albany, NY: State University of New York, 2008).