By Lisa L. Miller, an associate professor of political science at Rutgers University.
Conventional wisdom holds that federalism is one of the greatest contributions that the United States has made to modern democratic politics. Americans generally laud federalism for its limitations on government power, its facilitation of policy innovation at regional levels, and the multiple opportunities it provides for political engagement of the citizenry. This view is vividly on display in the recent state lawsuits filed against the federal government claiming that the health care bill, passed by Congress and signed by President Obama, is unconstitutional. The primary legal claim in these suits is that, in passing the bill, Congress violated the principles of American federalism by exceeding its power under the commerce clause (Article I, Section 8) and by infringing on the 10th Amendment through policymaking traditionally reserved to the states.
My concern here is not with the legal technicalities of the lawsuits but, rather, with the implicit assumptions about American federalism upon which they rely, particularly with respect to federalism's origins, purpose and functions. Traditional claims about the importance of limiting the scope of congressional authority and the benefits of decentralized decision-making are complicated by empirical investigations into the origins and impact of American federalism on actual politics.
A key claim about federalism is that it serves to promote citizen engagement and democratic representation by facilitating political activity at the periphery of the polity, not just the center. This is implicit in the health care lawsuits' claim that congressional action threatens the democratic practices reserved to states. But this claim is undermined by my research on actual patterns of political participation across different legislative venues. As I demonstrate in my book, The Perils of Federalism: Race, Poverty and the Politics of Crime Control, political participation and policy innovation by broad segments of the population can be hindered by federalism. This is because the fragmented and multi-layered American political landscape exacerbates classic collective action problems that plague groups concerned with broad social problems. Indeed, American-style federalism facilitates political activity by the exceptionally highly organized and those with the most robust resources, even when those groups represent only a fraction of political viewpoints on a given issue. Furthermore, it exacerbates existing race and class stratifications because citizens in greatest need of broad and deep political mobilization are those with the least capacity to sustain it across the fractured political terrain of American politics.
An example of this that emerges from the book is the success of the National Rifle Association, which manages to appear at legislative hearings in local city councils, multiple state legislatures and Congress whenever there is even the appearance of gun control legislation on the horizon in one of these venues. By contrast, people actually suffering from gun violence, accidents and suicides in the high-risk communities where guns are readily available are more diffuse and have far fewer resources to help them migrate across these many venues. In large urban areas there is intense political pressure to restrict gun access but cities are notoriously weak under our federal system and the interests of these groups are largely out-maneuvered in venues farther up the vertical federalism hierarchy.