Dual federalism, also known as layer-cake federalism, is a system of government in which power is divided between the national and state governments.
This concept of federalism posits that the national and state governments are distinct entities, each bearing its own unique range of responsibilities and authority.
Dual federalism states that the national and state governments have separate powers and responsibilities, usually outlined in a constitution.
In other words, the federal government and individual states are like two distinct layers, one atop the other.
The national government handles matters related to foreign policy, defense, and foreign trade, while the state governments retain authority over such matters as education and health care.
Definition of Dual Federalism
Dual federalism is a form of government that divides and shares power between the national and state governments in an orderly manner.
In this model of federalism, powers are portioned out vertically; each governmental body has exclusive authority over its own distinct responsibilities.
Smith and Greenblatt (2021) state that under dual federalism,
“…state governments exercise their powers without interference from the federal government” (p. 97).
According to Schaller (2016), it federalism:
“…also referred to as divided sovereignty, is a political arrangement in which power is divided between the federal and state governments in clearly defined terms, with state governments exercising those powers accorded to them without interference from the federal government” (p. 4).
Dual federalism is based on the idea of “layer cake federalism,” which suggests that national and state governments have designated powers and responsibilities. The two layers of government do not overlap, and they can act independently (Feeley & Rubin, 2011).
So, in simple terms, dual federalism is a system of governance in which the authority and responsibilities of both the national and state governments are clearly defined, separated, and respected.
10 Examples of Dual Federalism
- Taxation: The federal government is responsible for collecting taxes on income. In contrast, the state governments are responsible for collecting taxes on goods and services.
- Social security: The federal government is accountable for providing social security benefits to citizens, while the states are charged with administering these advantages.
- Education: Under this model of federalism, the federal government is responsible for funding public schools. In contrast, state governments are primarily accountable for managing and operating these educational institutions.
- Environmental protection: The federal government is answerable for developing environmental policies and enforcing them at the national level, while state and local governments are responsible for implementing these policies in their respective locales.
- Transportation: The federal government is responsible for constructing interstate highways and providing funds for public transportation, while state governments are in charge of operating public transportation systems, as well as constructing and maintaining state roads and highways.
- Law enforcement: The federal government is accountable for enforcing laws related to crime, terrorism, and immigration, while state governments are responsible for maintaining a police force and enforcing laws related to traffic and other misdemeanors.
- Healthcare: The federal government is responsible for issuing healthcare benefits and overseeing health insurance, while state governments are in charge of establishing the qualifications for Medicaid eligibility as well as managing its implementations.
- Banking: The federal government is liable for regulating the banking industry, while state governments are in charge of issuing banking licenses and examining individual banks.
- Immigration: The federal government is responsible for setting immigration laws, while state governments enforce these laws locally.
- Trade: The federal government is accountable for negotiating trade agreements with other countries and imposing tariffs on imported goods while state governments implement these regulations.
Dual Federalism vs. Cooperative Federalism
Cooperative federalism emphasizes the interaction between the state and national governments (Schutze, 2009).
Dual federalism follows the principle of “layer cake federalism,” where each layer of government is independent and responsible for its own designated area of authority.
In cooperative federalism, the national government provides funding and guidance to the state governments, who then have more flexibility in determining how this funding should be used (Raadschelders & Vigoda-Gadot, 2015).
Moreover, all state governments are mandated to obey the laws issued by the federal government.
Cooperative federalism is also known as “marble cake federalism” because the governments interact more frequently, and there is a greater overlap between their respective areas of authority (Raadschelders & Vigoda-Gadot, 2015).
The distinction between dual and cooperative federalism is that the former centers around the division of powers, such as division of expressed powers and implied powers. In contrast, the latter emphasizes cooperation and communication between national and state governments.
Features of Dual Federalism
Dual federalism is a form of government that recognizes and preserves the distinct powers of national and state governments while simultaneously allowing them to cooperate to better serve their citizens’ needs.
Here are the five features of dual federalism.
- Two or more levels of government: Dual federalism recognizes two levels of government—the national and the state—and assigns each level the exclusive power to make laws in its own specific areas of authority (Schütze, 2013). So, the national government is responsible for making laws affecting the whole nation. In contrast, state governments are tasked with making laws that apply only within their states.
- Jurisdictions of respective levels of government are specified in the constitution: Under dual federalism, the powers of each level of government are specified in the constitution. For example, the U.S. Constitution explicitly assigns the federal government authority over interstate commerce, foreign relations, and national defense (Schütze, 2013).
- Restriction of each level of government’s power to its own jurisdiction: Unlike other forms of government, dual federalism explicitly restricts each level of government’s power to its own jurisdiction. It means that the national government cannot make laws regarding matters within the exclusive jurisdiction of state governments and vice versa (Smith & Greenblatt, 2021).
- Courts have the power to interpret the boundaries of each level’s power: In dual federalism, courts can interpret and review the boundaries between each level’s power and ensure that one level of government is not overstepping its jurisdiction.
- Interstate cooperation is allowed: Furthermore, with dual federalism, states can coordinate and collaborate to undertake projects impacting multiple regions (Schütze, 2013). It could include setting up a shared energy grid or another vital infrastructure development endeavor across state boundaries.
Advantages of Dual Federalism
Dual federalism has many advantages, including stronger civil rights protection, the ability to serve citizens’ needs better, and increased political autonomy for states.
- Stronger civil rights protection: The division of powers between the national and state governments ensures that citizens’ rights remain better protected (Raadschelders & Vigoda-Gadot, 2015). For instance, in the event of a conflict between federal and state laws, federal laws prevail. It helps to provide citizens with greater protection against any unfair or unconstitutional state laws that may violate their civil rights.
- Better ability to serve citizens’ needs: Ideally, dual federalism should allow the national and state governments to serve their citizens’ needs better. The national government can focus on issues that affect the whole nation, such as national security or foreign policy. Meanwhile, state governments can focus on issues more relevant to their citizens, such as transportation infrastructure or education.
- Increased political autonomy for states: Under dual federalism, states enjoy more political autonomy than under other forms of government (Schutze, 2009). State governments are free to create laws, regulate economies, and manage public services. This increased autonomy helps states to better address the needs of their citizens. Additionally, this model of federalism helps preserve the sense of decentralization and diversity essential in a large, multicultural nation such as the United States.
Disadvantages of Dual Federalism
Disadvantages of dual federalism include an increased bureaucratic system, the possibility of having conflicting laws between states and the national government, and a higher risk of citizens’ rights not being equally protected.
- Increased governmental bureaucracy: Dual federalism can increase governmental bureaucracy, as each level of government must be staffed and maintained. It can result in increased costs for taxpayers, as well as decreased efficiency in the implementation of policies or services.
- Potential for conflicting laws: Another disadvantage is the potential for conflicting laws between states and the federal government. As each level of government is free to make its own laws, there is the risk that one law might contradict another. Such a situation can lead to confusion and difficulty in enforcing the law. This risk is amplified when states pass laws conflicting with the federal government’s interpretation of the Constitution.
- Unequal protection of citizens’ rights: Ultimately, dual federalism can lead to discrepancies in protecting citizens’ rights. Consequently, while each state is empowered to make its laws and regulations, individuals living in one area may be exposed to a different level of safety than those residing elsewhere. For instance, some states may have more stringent gun control measures than others. This inequality can lead to unfairness and injustice in the enforcement of laws across the country.
Dual federalism is a system of shared powers that allows the national and state governments to exercise their authority in different areas.
For example, the federal government can concentrate on challenges impacting the entire country while states may craft laws that better serve their individuals.
Compared to other forms of government, this model of federalism has several advantages, such as stronger civil rights protection, the ability to serve citizens’ needs better, and increased political autonomy for states.
Nonetheless, increased government bureaucracy, the possibility of dissimilar laws, and unequal protection of citizens’ rights are all potential downsides.
Overall, dual federalism can effectively structure the relationship between governments that balances autonomy and cooperation.
Feeley, M., & Rubin, E. L. (2011). Federalism: Political identity and tragic compromise. University of Michigan Press.
Raadschelders, J., & Vigoda-Gadot, E. (2015). Global dimensions of public administration and governance: A comparative voyage. John Wiley & Sons.
Schaller, J. (2016). Politically incorrect conservalexicon for the tenderfoot pundit. Dorrance Publishing.
Schutze, R. (2009). From dual to cooperative federalism: The changing structure of European law. Oxford University Press.
Schütze, R. (2013). From dual to cooperative federalism. OUP Oxford.
Smith, K. B., & Greenblatt, A. (2021). Governing states and localities (8th ed.). Sage.