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Learn About New Federalism with Examples

Akshay Chavan Feb 22, 2020
New Federalism basically means empowering the state administrations and giving them more freedom, thereby improving the lives of citizens. This post explains this concept in more detail, along with some examples for better understanding.

Fact of the Matter

Richard Nixon's idea of New Federalism did not mean loss of federal power. On the contrary, it actually gave more power to the White House.
Federalism is the system of governance where powers are divided between the Federal and the State Governments. The constitution divides these powers and decides the level of power at each level of the government. There has been a frequent shift in the powers of Congress and the states.
New Federalism is one of the various types of Federalism, such as Dual Federalism, Cooperative Federalism, and so on. Several presidents, having been the governors of states, have supported this idea, and have even worked in this direction. Let us have a clearer look at this system so as to understand it better.

What is New Federalism?

New federalism is a concept where the powers of the state governments are enhanced, and they are made more autonomous. The system where a central government is more powerful is called unitary federalism. There have been accusations that the American government has become too unitary, and that more powers need to be given to the local administrations.
During the Roosevelt regime, the New Deal legislation took away some of the states' powers and transferred them to the Federal Government.
The movement for New Federalism started in 1969 when president Nixon came to power, and since then, successive presidents have expressed support for the process despite disagreeing on minor details. It finds support among local populations, who argue that the federal government is being too intrusive.
These people believe that the state governments are closer to them, and hence, more accountable. New Federalism aims to return some powers from the federal government back to the states, and the term 'devolution' aptly denotes this process.
New Federalists also argue that certain federal powers should be reduced. This system involves the provision of Block Grants by the federal government to the states, so as to settle social issues. The results of the program is monitored by the federal government, but the state is given freedom of implementation.
There have been a few gains regarding this policy, as can be seen in the way the states handle various welfare schemes.

Proponents of New Federalism argue that enhanced state powers might enhance the general economy. Individual states will be able to handle their finances efficiently.
Also, it has been said that a state with more powers can try out innovative social and economic experiments, which can serve as an experiment without the fear of any risk to the rest of the nation.
Despite the excitement, there are a few reservations about it. The primary one is that, after getting more powers, state governments may enact different rules and regulations in different states. This will cause people in different states to live in varied conditions, affecting the general unity of the country.
Another problem might be a clash between state and local administrations. Also, there might be a lot of differences between what is expected of the New Federalism policy and what the ground reality might turn out to be.
One bone of contention between proponents of New federalism and its opponents is education. Some believe that the education system should be under strong control of the federal government, while some proponents argue against this, instead saying that the state governments should be involved in this.
Also, people want the federal government to take strong decisions in certain matters. An example is the criticism received by the government's handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
From 1937, there have been various legal disputes regarding New Federalism, wherein, the federal government was accused of exceeding its powers, but the US Supreme Court ruled in its favor.
However, since 1995, there are a couple of Supreme Court judgments which can be regarded as a victory for New Federalism. Some Acts also have been enacted by Congress under various governments which enhance the states' powers. Examples of these are given in the sections that follow.

Examples of New Federalism

United States Vs. Lopez

In 1992, Alfonso Lopez, Jr. was an Edison High School student in San Antonio, Texas, who was caught with the possession of a firearm while in school. He was found guilty and convicted by a court under the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 .
However, he later appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals under the argument that this Act was unconstitutional as the federal government had no right to interfere in the functioning of a public school. The court was convinced of his argument and overturned the lower court's verdict.
The federal government filed a petition for appeal in the Supreme Court, which was accepted.
When the case came up in the Supreme Court, it found the verdict of the Court of Appeals satisfactory, and stated that the above Act was a criminal statute, which did not fall under the purview of the Commerce Clause, and hence, the federal government could not interfere in the matter.

United States Vs. Morrison

In 1994, Christy Brzonkala, a student of Virginia Polytechnic Institute, was sexually assaulted by two college football players, Antonio Morrison and James Crawford. She filed a complaint in the institute, after which Morrison was suspended. But, a subsequent hearing struck down his suspension.
Crawford faced no action. After dropping out, Christy then sued the duo in the District Court under the government's Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) of 1994. However, the court rejected the complaint on the grounds that Congress did not have the right to enact the law, under either the Commerce Clause or the Fourteenth Amendment.
Brzonkala then filed an appeal against the court's decision at the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled in her favor and struck down the lower court's ruling. The matter went on to the Supreme Court, which in 2000 backed the District's Court's decision, stating that Congress had exceeded federal power.
Moreover, the court, under Chief Justice Rehnquist, invalidated a section of the VAWA Act which gave women the right to sue their attackers.

Gonzales Vs. Oregon

In 1994, citizens of the US state of Oregon approved by ballot measure an Act called the Death with Dignity Act. This Act allowed physicians to administer lethal injections to terminally ill patients. However, Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a directive to the states saying that the Death with Dignity Act violated the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.
In response, the state of Oregon sued Ashcroft in the District Court, which ruled in their favor. Further, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals backed the District Court's ruling.
Finally, in 2006, the Supreme Court upheld the Ninth Court's judgment, and also stated that the Attorney General had no powers to regulate the amount of controlled substances to be administered when the concerned substance was not prohibited.

Unfunded Mandates Reform Act

Under President Clinton, the US Congress enacted the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act in 1995. This Act aimed to reduce the number of unfunded mandates imposed by the federal government on the state governments, local governments, and tribal Governments (SLTG).
The Act also ensured that the costs for meeting certain requirements will be provided by the federal government. Lastly, it aimed to promote a higher level of cooperation between the federal government and the SLTG.

State Local and Fiscal Assistance Act

When President Richard Nixon was in power, the State Local and Fiscal Assistance Act was passed in 1972, which gave the state governments and municipalities revenue sharing funds of $30.2 billion for a period of five years.
The administrations had to create a trust fund for the purpose of depositing all revenue sharing funds, which could be audited by the federal government. The revenue funds could be combined with other funds, and at the same time, the state funds could be used without any restrictions.

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act

This Act, passed by the Clinton Administration in 1996, mainly focused on providing assistance to the poor. It provided a performance-based bonus to states that succeeded in transferring welfare beneficiaries to jobs. The main principle of this Act was to provide work-related temporary assistance.
The states had to provide information of all those who were given jobs. The Act also allowed stated state governments to create new jobs by providing subsidies to potential employers. Parents were required to pay for the well-being of their children.

Legacy of Parks

In the 1970s, the Richard Nixon government passed an Act under which land under federal control was to be given to the states for upkeep and development. The idea was to provide the public with high quality parks, gardens, and other recreational sites. This Act aimed to combine federal resources and local initiative for open space development.
It was also directed at strengthening the state machinery, by concentrating more powers in its administration. Historical or wilderness sites could be developed, besides working towards environmental conservation. The US Congress had arranged $200 million as funds for the state governments.
Recreational use of land was given more priority, and land in the public domain was the prime target.
The president even established the Federal Property Review Board that could monitor federal land and decide whether it could be given to the states, beside approaching the Housing and Development Board for increase in funding. By the late 1970s, hundreds of thousands of acres had been purchased under this scheme.
The many advocates of New Federalism vouch for its effectiveness. But in politics, everything is hotly contested. Some point at its shortcomings as a warning bell. As such, the debate rages on...