Federalism Ap Gov Essay Questions

Federalism is a unique idea, particular to American government. So, when you take the AP US Government & Politics exam, you are going to be asked a lot of questions about what federalism is and how it works.

Types of Government Power

Don’t be overwhelmed. The framework of the federal system is actually pretty simple. Under federalism, the national—or federal—government has certain powers and the states have other powers.

Let’s look at the various types of power, and what level of government wields them.

Federal powers, consisting of

1. Delegated powers: also called express powers, are written in the Constitution.

2. Implied powers: can be reasonably inferred from the Constitution.

3. Inherent powers: don’t rely on specific clauses of the Constitution but emanate from the nature of the federal government—for example, issues relating to foreign affairs.

Reserved powers: These are powers that are neither given to the federal government nor denied to the states. Although these powers are not expressed, they are guaranteed to the states via the 10th

In general these powers relate to states being able to govern their internal affairs—e.g., have police and fire departments.

Concurrent powers: These powers are held by the federal government and state governments, and include the powers of taxation and to make laws.

Prohibited powers: These powers are denied to the federal government or state governments, or both. One example of a prohibited power is the taxing of exports.

The Supremacy Clause

Article VI of the Constitution, the Supremacy Clause, states that the Constitution is the “supreme Law of the Land.” This means that all officials of the country, including state officials, must give oaths to support the Constitution, and states cannot override national powers.

So, from the very beginning the states were viewed as somewhat secondary to the federal government. Over time, states’ powers would increase, to the benefit of the federal government.

Let’s look at how that process played out.

Early Federalism—or Dual Federalism

Up until the Civil War, the original interpretation of federalism was something known as dual federalism. This view held that the Constitution had given limited powers to the federal government and left most powers in the hands of the states.

The federal government was held to dominate in its areas of influence (e.g., foreign affairs) and the states in theirs (e.g., slavery or education), with the Supreme Court acting as umpire when disputes arose between the two.

After the Civil War

Dual federalism was criticized for not adequately protecting citizens from states that denied freedom (for example, slavery and Jim Crow laws) and for being ill equipped to handle the social and economic changes affecting the country.

Post-Civil War, federalism has evolved considerably. The causes of this include the Civil War, the territorial expansion of the U.S., America becoming an industrial and international power, the two World Wars and the perceived threats of communism to American interests.

After the Civil War, the biggest change to federalism was the application of federal rights—those contained in the Bill of Rights—to the states. Previously, the Bill of Rights applied only to the federal government; after it applied across-the-board.

Cooperative Federalism

After the Great Depression, cooperative federalism saw the federal government expand its domestic activities. Under this idea, also known as fiscal federalism, the federal government sends monies to the states, and attaches stipulations, or rules and regulations, to the funds.

This allows the federal government to exercise much more power over domestic affairs than it was given in the Constitution.

Both liberal and conservative presidents have utilized cooperative federalism to implement their policies. Obamacare contains many instances of cooperative federalism; so too did President Bush’s No Child Left Behind law.

The idea of cooperative federalism views federalism as a system to help provide goods and services to citizens. Again, Obamacare is a good example of this, as the federal law set up a framework for state governments to establish statewide exchanges that would provide affordable healthcare options to citizens.

Essentially—the federal government gives the states money and tells them how to spend it. The states thus become agents of federal policy.

Now let’s look at some elements of federalism within the federal government.

The Separation of Powers

Inherent to the federal system is the separation of powers within the federal government. This is Government 101. Congress passes legislation and the president signs it into law. If the president vetoes legislation, Congress can override the veto and pass the legislation with the vote of two-thirds of each house.

The Supreme Court can declare acts of Congress or actions by the president unconstitutional. A constitutional amendment is required to subvert this.

Checks and Balances

The veto power is part of the federal system of checks and balances – powers given to each branch of government to prevent unfettered action by the other branches.

The Supreme Court’s power to rule acts unconstitutional falls within the system also of checks and balances. This power is known as judicial review.

Another example of checks and balances is the requirement that the Senate approve presidential nominees and treaties with other nations.

Let’s look at the basic powers that the federal government and the states have.

Basic Federal Powers

1. Taxation

2. Raise and maintain the army

3. Declare war

4. Regulate commerce

5. Supreme Court rulings

6. Rights incorporated by the 14th Amendment—in other words, the application of the Bill of Rights to the States

7. Miscellaneous (laws against kidnapping, crossing state lines to commit crimes, harming federal officials, violating civil rights)

Basic State Powers

1. Taxation

2. Conducting elections

3. 10th Amendment rights

4. ‘Traditional’ rights such as marriage licenses, business licenses, criminal laws, education

Not too complicated, right? Now let’s take a look at a sample free-response question.

Federalism in the United States has shifted from a form known as “dual federalism” to a newer “cooperative federalism.”

1. Define these two kinds of federalism.

2. Explain why this newer concept of “cooperative federalism” favors the powers of the central government.

Part (a) is easy to answer. Again, dual federalism was the view that the federal government and state governments operated in separate spheres, and had few powers, aside from taxation, that overlapped. Cooperative federalism sees the two levels of government working in tandem on many issues, such as healthcare and education.

Now, let’s think about (b). Why does cooperative federalism favor federal power? One word: money. Since the federal government gives its money to the states with strings attached, it can exercise considerable policy control via these strings. Federal highway funds, for example, are contingent on states keeping their drinking ages at 21—otherwise, no more money from Uncle Sam to build roads!


This basic overview should serve you well as you prepare for the AP US Government & Politics exam. Remember, though—this is just an outline. You’ll want lots of specific examples of cooperative federalism in the event you’re asked to answer a federalism-based free-response question.

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