Federalism as Method of Distributing Political Power

Describe “Federalism” as a method of distributing political power, and explain how it differs from “Unitary” governmental systems.

Federal and unitary systems are ideal types of government, both representing the endpoints of a continuum. Most countries fall somewhere in between the two extremes”states can be more or less unitary or more or less federal. So-called “semi federal” countries occupy a middle category, possessing an intermediate level of government that does not have the same protections of sovereignty that the states or provinces of federal states enjoy. A proper understanding of these types of constitution requires the consideration of additional features of each type.

In order to understand Federalism, we need to know the definition of Federalism. Federalism is a political system through which two or more governments have shared authority over the same geographical area. The exact structure of the various Federal Systems vary greatly. Some federations have a central government that regulates the whole country, while others give more power to the different states or provinces. In some federations there are clear divisions in the law-making powers of the different entities, while in other federations the powers overlap. Federal systems are often governed by a Congress, with a President or a Parliament with a Prime Minister. In the case of the United States, the power is divided into the national government and the state’s government.

The federal government determines foreign policy, with exclusive power to make treaties, declare war, and control imports and exports.  The federal government has the sole authority to print money.  Most governmental responsibilities, however, are shared by state and federal governments and these include taxation, business regulation, environmental protection, and civil rights. States have their own legislative branch, executive branch, and judicial branch. The states are empowered to pass, enforce, and interpret laws, as long as they do not violate the Constitution. States usually have the power to decide what to do with their roads, schools, etc. without any interference form the national (federal) government, unless the money that is being used to fund these projects comes from the federal national government. Regardless of the kind of federalism, the Constitution does provide some very specific powers to both the states and the federal government. Delegated powers are those powers specifically assigned to the Federal Government. 

The national government has very specific enumerated powers including the regulation of interstate and international trade, coinage and currency, war, maintenance of armed forces, postal system, enforcement copyrights and power to enter into treaties. In the case of reserved powers, all powers not specifically delegated to the Federal Government are to be reserved or saved for the State Governments. These powers include power to establish schools, establishment of local governments, and police powers. Concurrent means “at the same time.” Concurrent powers are those that both the federal and state governments share simultaneously, for example the power to tax, maintain courts and the ability to construct and maintain roads. Implied powers are powers that are NOT specifically delegated in the Constitution, but are understood to be necessary or allowed. The “necessary and proper clause” of the Constitution state that Congress has the power to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers .

        Unitary system is a system of political organization in which most or all of the governing power resides in a centralized government. This type of government system contrasts with a federal system. In a unitary system, the central government commonly delegates authority to subnational units and channels policy decisions down to them for implementation. A majority of nation-states are unitary systems. They vary greatly. Great Britain, for example, decentralizes power in practice though not in constitutional principle. Others grant varying degrees of autonomy to subnational units. In France, the classic example of a centralized administrative system, some members of local government are appointed by the central government, whereas others are elected. In the United States, all states have unitary governments with bicameral legislatures (except Nebraska, which has a unicameral legislature). Ultimately, all local governments in a unitary system are subject to a central authority. The United States is not an example of Unitary system. The reason why the United States does not fall into this type of government is because the power in the US is divided up into two different type of powers, national and state government, which is further divided, therefore the power is not concentrated in one specific type of power.

        In conclusion, both systems can refer to democratic or monarchic governments, but they are intrinsically different. As the name suggests, the unitary government entails the centralization of power in the hands of the central government, which does not distribute the power into other type of systems. Conversely, in a federal system, regions and provinces enjoy a higher degree of autonomy.Today, we see various examples of how both of these systems work to ensure the stability and prosperity of their own nations. For instance, the United States and Switzerland are two examples of the efficiency of the federal system. For example, the United States divides the overall power into federal and state government power. In a unitary type of government, however, the power is concentrated to one specific power, rather than dividing it up. An example of this is Great Britain. Great Britain  decentralizes power in practice though not in constitutional principle. To put it in a simpler way, the difference between a unitary and a federal government is that a unitary government puts its power in one central government while in a federal system the governing power is divided into federal and local governing bodies that connect to the national government.

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