State Power and Delegation


Before the ratification of the Constitution, the state governments’ power far exceeded that held by the national government. This distribution of authority was the result of a conscious decision and was reflected in the structure and framework of the Articles of Confederation. The national government was limited, lacking both a president to oversee domestic and foreign policy and a system of federal courts to settle disputes between the states.

Restricting power at the national level gave the states a great deal of authority over and independence from the federal government. Each state legislature appointed its own Congressional representatives, subject to recall by the states, and each state was given the authority to collect taxes from its citizens. But limiting national government power was not the delegates’ only priority. They also wanted to prevent any given state from exceeding the authority and independence of the others. The delegates ultimately worked to create a level playing field between the individual states that formed the confederation. For instance, the Articles of Confederation could not be amended without the approval of each state, and each state received one vote in Congress, regardless of population.“Articles of Confederation,” (March 14, 2016).

It wasn’t long after the Articles of Confederation were established that cracks began to appear in their foundation. Congress struggled to conduct business and to ensure the financial credibility of the new country’s government. One difficulty was its inability to compel the individual states to cover their portion of Revolutionary War debt. Attempts to recoup these funds through the imposition of tariffs were vetoed by states with a vested financial interest in their failure.“Tax History Museum: The Revolutionary War to the War of 1812 (1777–1815),” (March 14, 2016).

Given the inherent weaknesses in the system set up by the Articles, in 1787 the delegates came together once again to consider amendments to the Articles, but they ended up instead considering a new design for the government (Figure). To produce more long-term stability, they needed to establish a more effective division of power between the federal and state governments. Ultimately, the framers settled on a system in which power would be shared: The national government had its core duties, the state governments had their duties, and other duties were shared equally between them. Today this structure of power sharing is referred to as federalism.

An image of an original handwritten version of the Articles of Confederation.
The Articles of Confederation, written in 1777 and adopted in 1781, established the first government of the United States. The Articles were replaced by the Constitution in 1787.

The Constitution allocated more power to the federal government by effectively adding two new branches: a president to head the executive branch and the Supreme Court to head the judicial branch. The specific delegated or expressed powers granted to Congress and to the president were clearly spelled out in the body of the Constitution under Article I, Section 8, and Article II, Sections 2 and 3.

In addition to these expressed powers, the national government was given implied powers that, while not clearly stated, are inferred. These powers stem from the elastic clause in Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution, which provides Congress the authority “to make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the Foregoing powers.” This statement has been used to support the federal government’s playing a role in controversial policy matters, such as the provision of healthcare, the expansion of power to levy and collect taxes, and regulation of interstate commerce. Finally, Article VI declared that the U.S. Constitution and any laws or treaties made in connection with that document were to supersede constitutions and laws made at the state level. This clause, better known as the supremacy clause, makes clear that any conflict in law between the central (or federal) government and the regional (or state) governments is typically resolved in favor of the central government.

Although the U.S. Constitution clearly allocated more power to the federal government than had been the case under the Articles of Confederation, the framers still respected the important role of the states in the new government. The states were given a host of powers independent of those enjoyed by the national government. As one example, they now had the power to establish local governments and to account for the structure, function, and responsibilities of these governments within their state constitutions. This gave states sovereignty, or supreme and independent authority, over county, municipal, school and other special districts.

States were also given the power to ratify amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Throughout U.S. history, all amendments to the Constitution except one have been proposed by Congress and then ratified by either three-fourths of the state legislatures or three-fourths of the state conventions called for ratification purposes. This process ensures that the states have a voice in any changes to the Constitution. The Twenty-First Amendment (repealing the Eighteenth Amendment’s prohibition on alcohol) was the only amendment ratified using the state ratifying convention method. Although this path has never been taken, the U.S. Constitution even allows for state legislatures to take a direct and very active role in the amendment proposal process. If at least two-thirds of the state legislatures apply for a national convention, constitutional amendments can be proposed at the convention.

Debating the Need for a National Convention

As of 2015, twenty-seven states had passed applications to hold a national convention. These states are pushing for the opportunity to propose a constitutional amendment requiring the national government to balance its budget in the same way most states are mandated to do. For a national convention to be held, at least thirty-four states must submit applications. Thus, only seven states currently stand in the way of the first national convention in U.S. history.Reid Wilson, “Conservative Lawmakers Weigh Bid to Call for Constitutional Convention,” Washington Post, 4 April 2015.

Proponents see the convention as an opportunity to propose an amendment they argue is necessary to reduce federal spending and promote fiscal responsibility. Conservatives and Tea Party members believe reducing the deficit is important to maintaining the country’s future economic health and its competitive strength in global markets. They also believe the growing roster of states favoring a convention may encourage Congress to take action on its own.

Opponents feel a balanced budget amendment is not realistic given the need for emergency spending in the event of an economic recession. They also worry about the spending cuts and/or tax increases the federal government would have to impose to consistently balance the budget. Some states fear a balanced-budget requirement would limit the federal government’s ability to provide them with continued fiscal support. Finally, other opponents argue that states balance only their operating budgets, while themselves assuming massive amounts of debt for capital projects.

But perhaps the greatest fear is of the unknown. A national convention is unprecedented, and there is no limit to the number of amendments delegates to such a convention might propose. However, such changes would still need to be ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures or state conventions before they could take effect.

What are the potential benefits of a national constitutional convention? What are the risks? Are the benefits worth the risks? Why or why not?

Despite the Constitution’s broad grants of state authority, one of the central goals of the Anti-Federalists, a group opposed to several components of the Constitution, was to preserve state government authority, protect the small states, and keep government power concentrated in the hands of the people. For this reason, the Tenth Amendment was included in the Bill of Rights to create a class of powers, known as reserved powers, exclusive to state governments. The amendment specifically reads, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” In essence, if the Constitution does not decree that an activity should be performed by the national government and does not restrict the state government from engaging in it, then the state is seen as having the power to perform the function. In other words, the power is reserved to the states.

Besides reserved powers, the states also retained concurrent powers, or responsibilities shared with the national government. As part of this package of powers, the state and federal governments each have the right to collect income tax from their citizens and corporate tax from businesses. They also share responsibility for building and maintaining the network of interstates and highways and for making and enforcing laws (Figure). For instance, many state governments have laws regulating motorcycle and bicycle helmet use, banning texting and driving, and prohibiting driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

On the left is an image of a sign that reads “No texting while driving”. On the right is an image of a person in the driver’s seat of a vehicle. The person is holding a phone in their hand and looking at it.
State (and sometimes local) governments regulate items having to do with highway safety, such as laws against cellphone use while driving. (credit right: modification of work by “Lord Jim”/Flickr)