What level of government should exercise what kinds of authority? That question has been vigorously debated throughout U.S. history. Indeed, the U.S. Constitution itself represented a radical departure from the nation’s original governance structure under the Articles of Confederation from 1776 to 1789. The Constitution established the supremacy of the federal government vis-a-vis the states, and political power has increasingly been centralized in Washington. The Civil War cemented this supremacy. By the turn of the 20th century, the Courts had interpreted the Constitution as giving states virtually unlimited power vis-a-vis their cities and counties.
In the early 20th century the municipal home rule movement gained modest autonomy for local governments. Since the late 20th century there has been a substantial move to devolve authority from Washington to state capitols. At the same time, however, Washington increasingly preempts state authority and states increasingly preempt local authority. In the 1990s a new factor was added as free trade agreements began to undermine national authority as well.
The strongest argument in favor of local control is that government works best and is most legitimate when it is most intimately connected with its citizens. The strongest arguments against local control are that it fragments decisionmaking, burdens commerce, and often leads to parochialism and an erosion of civil liberties.
As befits the complex nature of the issue, this section is different from the other parts of the New Rules. It offers insights into the many dimensions of the devolution-preemption debate and discusses initiatives that devolve authority to communities while preserving the rights of minorities.
- Rogue Federal Agencies Gut State Banking Laws – by Stacy Mitchell, The New Rules, Fall 2001
- Preempt This: Michigan Cities Fight Back – by Daniel Kraker, The New Rules, Fall 2000
- A Devolution Test for George W. Bush – by David Morris, The New Rules, Winter 2001
- One Percent for Citizenship – by David Morris, The New Rules, Fall 2000
- It’s the Community, Stupid! – by David Morris, The New Rules, Summer 2000
- The Place of Place in the 21st Century – by David Morris, The New Rules, Winter 2000
- Devolution as if Community Matters – by David Morris, The New Rules, Fall 1999
- Democratizing Ownership – by David Morris, The New Rules, Summer 1999
- The New Rules of Localism– A speech by David Morris presented at the International Forum on Globalization in Washington, D.C., May 1996.
- The Politics of Preemption: The Role of State and Federal Government in Environmental and Consumer Protection under the Bush Administration – U.S. PIRG Education Fund, October 2003
- Anything left to Legislate About? – an overview of federal-state preemption on a variety of issues from the states’ point of view, State Legislatures magazine, September 1999
- Urban Institute’s Assessing the New Federalism Program – a multi-year research project to analyze the devolution of responsibility for social programs from the federal government to the states, focusing primarily on health care, income security, job training, and social services.
- The Other Side of Devolution: Shifting Relationships Between State and Local Governments – by Keith Watson and Steven D. Gold, Urban Institute, August 1997.
- The National Governor’s Association page on federalism, with updates on current legislation.