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Federalism is a system of government in which power is divided between a national (federal) government and various state governments.   In the United States, the U.S. Constitution gives certain powers to the federal government, other powers to the state governments, and yet other powers to both.

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.

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.

Federalism in the United States has evolved quite a bit since it was first implemented in 1787. Two major kinds of federalism have dominated political theory. There is dual federalism, in which the federal and the state governments are co-equals.  Under this theory, there is a very large group of powers belonging to the states, and the federal government is limited to only those powers explicitly listed in the Constitution.  As such, the federal government has jurisdiction only to the extent of powers mentioned in the constitution.

Under the second theory of federalism known as cooperative federalism, the national, state, and local governments interact cooperatively and collectively to solve common problems. Cooperative federalism asserts that the national government is supreme over the states.

Regardless of the kind of federalism, the Constitution does provide some very specific powers to both the states and the federal government. They are:

  • Delegated Powers – 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.
  • Reserved Powers – In this case, 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 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 – These 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” (art. I, sec. 8 of the US Constitution).

Inside Federalism