Powers of the Federal Government and the State Governments

federal v stateby Ralph Scharnau

Under the Constitution, the United States operates with a federal government and state governments. Clashes between the states and the federal government over their respective authorities have long been a regular feature of our politics.

One important area of conflict concerns control over federal public lands in the West. Since the 1970s, western individuals and state legislatures have demanded the turnover of federal lands to the states. Actually, this issue has been smoldering for over a hundred years. Current news reports from Oregon cite armed militants occupying a federal wildlife refuge to protest the control and use of the land by the federal government.

In the current presidential campaigning, moreover, Republican Ben Carson argued that the federal government should “return” 2.4 billion acres of federal lands to the states. He confused the actual land mass of the United States with the 640 million acres of national forests, parks, wildlife refuges, and rangelands owned and managed by the federal government.

More importantly, federal lands have never been owned by the states. Rather they are public lands acquired through treaties, purchases and cessions. Carson’s call to “return” them distorts the historical context and gives a misleading impression of how federal land ownership works. Yet transferring public lands in the West to the states represents a staple argument of states-rights and conservative groups.
Where there has been a significant shift in power involves education. When President Obama signed the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) last December, it significantly transfers the power over education policy away from the federal government to states and school districts.

This sets the nation’s public schools on a sweeping new course of accountability that will change the way teachers are evaluated and how the poorest performing schools are pushed to improve. Replacing the widely criticized landmark No Child Left Behind education law of 2002, the ESSA seeks to balance Republicans wanting a limited federal role and Democrats insisting on civil rights and equal access. The new law encourages states to limit the time students spend on testing and diminishes the high stakes for underperforming schools. The new law gives states flexibility, beyond testing results, to consider additional performance measures such as graduation rates.

The legislation eliminates the federal mandate that teacher evaluations be tied to student performance on statewide tests. Students still have to take the federally mandated statewide reading and math exams in grades three to eight and once in high school. But states are encouraged to set caps on the amount of time students spend on testing. The law also gives more children from low and moderate income families access to preschool. States and districts will now assume responsibility for school goals, measures of achievement and progress, and helping struggling schools. The federal government will no longer tell states and local districts how to assess school and teacher performance.

Conflicts between states and the national government, dating back to the formation of the Constitution itself, will continue to occur. The appropriate exercise of national power sharply divides Republicans from Democrats. It also divides members of the Supreme Court.

Clashing views of federal and state power often pit state and federal officials against each other. Sharp disagreements happen when considering measures to safeguard the environment, spend money, regulate economic activities, defend consumers, uphold civil rights, prevent violence against women, and define criminal conduct in general and hate crimes in particular. Beyond liberal-conservative differences, the separation of powers and checks and balances of our political system sharpen these areas of discord.

Ralph Scharnau teaches U.S. history at Northeast Iowa Community College, Peosta. He holds a Ph.D. from Northern Illinois University. His publications include articles on labor history in Iowa and Dubuque. Scharnau, a peace and justice activist, writes monthly op-ed columns for the Dubuque Telegraph Herald.


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