Chapter Study Outline


One great achievement of the American founding was the creation of an effective constitutional structure of political institutions. Two important aspects of the U.S. Constitution—federalism and the separation of powers—represent, in part, the framers’ efforts to divide governmental power. Federalism limits government by creating two sovereign powers—the national government and state governments—thereby restraining the influence of both. Separation of powers imposes internal limits by dividing government against itself, giving different branches separate functions and forcing them to share power.

1. Who Does What? Federalism and Institutional Jurisdictions What is federalism? Why did the Founders adopt a federal rather than a unitary system? What kinds of federal relationships did the Constitution establish and how? How and why has the federal balance of power changed over time?

  • Federalism is the system of government in which power is divided between a central government and regional governments; in the United States, both the national government and the state governments possess a large measure of sovereignty.
  • Although some of the framers hoped to create something close to a unitary system of government, the states were kept both because of their well-established and already-functioning political institutions and because of the popular attachments eighteenth-century “Americans” had to their individual states.
  • The framers of the Constitution granted a few expressed powers to the national government, reserving the remainder of powers to the states.
    • In addition to the expressed powers of the national government, the “necessary and proper” clause provided an avenue for expansion into the realm of “implied powers.”
    • The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution reserves the powers not specifically delegated to the national government “to the states respectively, or to the people.” Along with states’ traditional police powers and shared (concurrent) powers, the Tenth Amendment provides the constitutional basis for state power in the federal relationship.
    • Federalism also involves the complex relationships among the various states. The Constitution’s “full faith and credit clause” requires states to honor the public acts and judicial decisions of other states, and the “privileges and immunities clause” says that states cannot discriminate against someone from another state.
    • Federalism also involves some limitations on state authority, particularly involving relationships between state governments. Local governments, while not recognized in the Constitution, are used by states in conducting the activities of government.
  • Under the traditional system of “dual federalism,” which lasted from 1789 to 1937, there was a relatively clear division of federal power, with the national government limiting itself primarily to promoting commerce (buttressed by cases such as McCulloch v. Maryland and Gibbons v. Ogden), while the states did most of the governing.
  • After 1937, a system of “cooperative federalism” took hold, which was characterized by partnerships between the national government and governments at the state and local level; this cooperation began to blur the traditional lines of authority, which had been relatively clear under “dual federalism.” Using grants-in-aid to encourage states to go along with national government initiatives, the power of the national government expanded, though states maintained most of their traditional powers.
  • Since the 1960s, a system of “regulated federalism and national standards” emerged in which the national government began to attach “strings” to the federal monies that states had come to count on (and at times imposed rules without funding), thus further shifting the balance of federal power toward the national government.
  • The current state of federalism, sometimes known as “new federalism,” involves a tug-of-war for power, with the states resurgent in the federal framework. Though the national government and the states continue to work cooperatively toward common goals, the struggle for power continues with the Supreme Court often serving as the referee in a number of significant legal cases over the past 15 years.

2. The Separation of Powers How did the Constitution divide power between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government? What are the different roles played by each of these branches in American national government?

  • Separation of powers divides power among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches as distinct departments of American national government.
    • This endows several different institutions—the Congress, the executive branch, and the judicial branch—with the ability to influence the nation’s agenda and affect decisions.
    • This also establishes a system of checks and balances in which power is divided to ensure that no one branch becomes predominant.
  • Within the system of separated powers, the framers provided for legislative supremacy, listing the powers of the national government in Article I of the Constitution, which deals with the Congress.
  • Presidential government has emerged, particularly after 1937, such that Congress and the president perpetually compete for control of the national government, particularly during periods of divided government.
  • The separation of powers system of checks and balances relies on the goal-seeking behavior of politicians acting within the various institutions of the national government. Exemplifying the Rationality Principle, the give–and–take between the legislative and executive branches is fueled by the ambitions of the politicians working within those institutions.
  • Just as the Supreme Court has served as a referee in the evolution of the federal balance of power by asserting “judicial review,” it also mediates separation of powers disputes between the Congress and the president.