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The relationship between the states and the federal government: lesson overview

A high-level overview of the relationship between the states and the federal government. 
Government in the United States is shared between local, state, and federal governments. The distribution of power between state and national governments has changed over time in response to societal needs.
Map of the United States denoting states and counties.
Map of the United States, including state and county boundaries. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Key terms

TermDefinition
block grantsFederal grants issued to states or local governments to support broad programs
categorical grantsFederal grants restricted to specific purposes
concurrent powersPowers shared by the federal government and state governments, e.g. lawmaking and taxation
exclusive powersPowers reserved either to the federal government or state governments
federalismPolitical system that organizes government into two or more levels with independent powers; in the United States this consists of local, state, and national governments
federal revenue sharingThe practice of sharing federal income tax revenue with state and local governments
mandateA requirement that states or local governments meet a specific condition in order to receive federal aid

Document to know

The US Constitution: Articles IV and V of the US Constitution outline the federal system used in the United States today.
Article IV establishes that the states will give “full faith and credit” to the laws of other states. For example, if a citizen gets legally married in one state, he is still married if he moves to another state. Likewise, if a citizen commits a crime in one state, she cannot escape to another state and evade justice. States also can’t discriminate against citizens of other states if they move; any US citizen who moves to a state is entitled to the same “privileges and immunities” of citizenship in that state as someone born there.
Article IV also promises states the protection of the federal government. It does this by promising to defend states against invasion, guaranteeing them a republican form of government, and barring the federal government from splitting up a state without the consent of its legislature and Congress.
Article V describes the process of amending the Constitution, which requires the ratification of three-quarters of the states. This provision of the Constitution demonstrates the importance of the states in approving the workings of the US government.

Exclusive and concurrent powers of state and federal governments

Exclusive federal powersConcurrent powersExclusive state powers
Coining moneyTaxationConducting elections
Regulating interstate and foreign commerceLawmaking and enforcementEstablishing local governments
Regulating the mailChartering banks and corporationsProviding for public safety, health, welfare
Declaring warTaking land for public use (eminent domain)Maintaining militia
Raising armiesEstablishing courtsRatifying Constitutional amendments
Conducting foreign affairsBorrowing moneyRegulating intrastate commerce
Establishing inferior courts
Establishing rules of naturalization

Key takeaways

Constitutional allocation of power: In addition to the separation of powers and system of checks and balances that guard against any one branch of the federal government becoming too powerful, federalism separates the powers of the federal and state governments as an added security measure to reign in government power. The federal system grants states large autonomy over lawmaking within their borders, so long as they do not violate citizens’ rights or contradict federal laws. The federal government is also able to assert power over the states through grants and mandates.
This system allows local state governments to be responsive to the particular needs of their citizens while binding the states together into a larger nation.

Review questions

Name one power exclusive to the federal government and one power exclusive to state governments. Now, name two concurrent powers shared by both state governments and the federal government.
Why is the American system of government divided into three levels? What is the impact of the federal system on US policymaking?
Why are certain powers reserved to different levels of government? Can you make a generalization about the kinds of powers reserved to the federal government vs. the kinds of powers reserved to state governments?

Want to join the conversation?

  • blobby green style avatar for user navasae1211
    Should the Federal government devolve more power to the state governments because policymaking is more effective at the state level?
    (6 votes)
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  • leaf grey style avatar for user Nian Powell
    I have a question. What is essential differences between unitary, confederate, and federal systems of government?
    Thanks!
    (3 votes)
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    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Hecretary Bird
      Unitary governmmental systems place high emphasis on the central government, while federal governments delegate more power to individual regions of the country. A confederacy is formed when separate states consolidate their power into a weaker federal government, kind of the opposite of a unitary government. Hope this helps!
      (3 votes)
  • starky sapling style avatar for user Isabell collins
    Let's say the state of South Carolina wanted to make their own Carolinian dollars and the federal government approved. How would the trade between South Carolina and other states happen if they only accepted Carolinian dollars? What are the advantages of this? Because all I see are disadvantages.
    Thanks bunches!
    -Izzy.
    (2 votes)
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  • stelly orange style avatar for user N
    How do federal mandates affect the government specifically? I know that states are forced to comply with those mandates, but how does it affect decisions made in the government? In short, what are the advantages and disadvantages of federal mandates? Thanks!
    (1 vote)
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    • hopper cool style avatar for user Iron Programming
      A law is a bill that went through the legislative system (whether on the state or national level) and came into being like so.

      An example of a mandate is an executive order issued by the US president (or governor for a state). Executive orders/actions and mandates have also been a topic of controversy. Presidents argue that the following clause gives them the power to executive actions: "The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America."
      They say that in order to do their job (enforce the laws) they need to make executive orders (with the force of law) to specify and ensure that these laws are followed. Of course, the courts require that the presidents make all of their decisions based upon the Constitution, but as we all know power is a slippery slope.

      So for example, I do not know what argument people would give for a "Mask Mandate" (on any level), but I do not believe there is any place in the Constitution that gives the government power to restrict our actions in that way.

      The conclusion of the matter is that mandates are often used to "get the job done quickly," often extending outside of the president's/mayor's/governor's jurisdiction in the process.

      This is a huge topic in itself, and it has also been a controversial topic. Some executive actions have been great, such as the Emancipation Proclamation, and others, such as the Executive Order 9066 (putting Japanese in intermet camps), are widely recognized as horrible executive orders.

      Hope this helps.
      (1 vote)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Alex Annias
    Exclusive to Federal Government: Raise armies.

    Exclusive to the States: Regulating Intrastate commerce.
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user 0413825
    why the the federal government and one power exclusive to state governments.
    (0 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user AndrewWei10000
    1. The federal government has the exclusive power to raise an army. The state governments have the exclusive power to vote to ratify an amendment. Both the federal government and the state governments can collet taxes and charter banks.
    2. The American government is divided into three levels to fit the needs of differing regions. The federal system allows different regions to have different policies and laws, but it also requires them to follow certain policies and laws from the level(s) above.
    3. Certain powers are reserved to different levels of government to support distribution of power. Federal and state governments both have the ability to influence the level of government below them.
    (0 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user 10130614
    How has the relationship between the federal and state governments evolved
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Elizabeth Schultz
    Why do some people conterfit money?
    (0 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user 12630878
    Unitary governmental systems place a high emphasis on the central government, while federal governments delegate more power to individual regions of the country.
    (0 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user