The Speaker
Wednesday, 24 July 2024 – 23:29

Explaining States & Federalism in the United States

States, unsurprisingly, are vital to the United States of America. The collection of 50 states that are united as one nation, and at the same time each state acts with a great deal of autonomy over their own destiny and are often miniature nations in their own right. As an example, if California were an independent nation, it would be the world’s fifth-biggest economy, ahead of Germany, India and the United Kingdom and New York would be tenth.

Federal Governments are common across the world, with Australia and Germany having a similar system, but the scale and scope of United States federalism is unprecedented and is exactly as the constitution intended.

What are the powers of the state government?

The US is run by a national (federal) government, that sets the laws and regulations that govern the entire nation. The federal government takes full responsibility for foreign policy and trade decisions, however, their ability to create domestic policy is slightly limited. All states have significant power over their domestic affairs, including setting law and tax policies – which is why if you have travelled to the United States, you will notice that clothing is much cheaper in Florida than in New York, as Florida has a far lower rate of sales tax.

Although some domestic policy is federalised, therefore decided by the national government, there is often a significant conflict between where the power of the federal government stops, and where the state power starts. A notable example of this is over abortion rights (the right to free choice), with many states prohibiting access to abortion (or making it almost impossible to access through tight regulation) despite the federal government ruling that women had the right to choose in the landmark Roe vs Wade Supreme Court case in 1973. In Ohio, the governor recently vetoed a bill that would have made it illegal to perform an abortion if a heartbeat was detected. His reasoning for doing so, despite labelling himself as ‘pro-life’ (against a woman’s right to an abortion), is that it would get struck down in federal courts due to established Supreme Court precedent.

Each state acts as a sort of a miniature form of the national government, with their own state House of Representatives and state Senate; their own state executive, headed by a governor; and a state supreme court. The legislative bodies in each state are responsible for making laws that are exclusive to the affairs of that state, however, each state is subordinate in power to what the federal government has to say and what the Supreme Court of the United States decides, meaning that state-level laws can often be overruled by the federal government. This is known as the ‘supremacy clause’, and is the 6th article of the United States constitution.

Currently, there are 50 states in the union of the United States – with each represented by a star on the US flag – which is an increase from the original 13 colonies that broke away from the United Kingdom to become the United States in 1776 – with these original states being represented as the 13 stripes on the US flag. The first state admitted into the union was Delaware, being the first to ratify the constitution in 1787; the most recent states admitted were Alaska and Hawaii, being admitted to the union in January and August 1959, respectively.

Photo: US Supreme Court

What about Territories?

What about Puerto Rico? Puerto Rico is often considered to be America’s 51st state, coming closely under the jurisdiction of the United States’ federal government and even having representation in Congress – although they are not permitted to vote. Puerto Rico is considered likely to become a state in the coming years, with its citizens being considered Americans, due to the Caribbean island being a United States territory, although as a significantly less economically developed region, many are reluctant to admit them as the 51st state.

Guam, American Samoa, Northern Mariana Islands and the US Virgin Islands are also considered to be territories of the United States, with their citizens also being American citizens. As much smaller territories with far lesser populations, these are not considered for statehood, although there are increasing calls for them to be brought more closely into the union, particularly following natural disasters and territorial threats coming, predominantly, from China and North Korea.

Why is Washington D.C. different?

The confusing case of Washington D.C. is that it is neither a state nor belonging to any state, rather it is a federal enclave (meaning that it is a patch of federal territory within a state that the state has no power over). The capital city of the United States is built upon swampland that was ceded by Maryland and Virginia, either side of the Potomac River, upon the founding of the nation.

Washington D.C., unlike the territories, have the power to vote in the presidential election, being given three delegates to the Electoral College. Washington D.C. has frequently called for statehood itself, as they are currently not represented by any voting members in Congress, meaning they have no proper representation over the laws of the United States, despite being home to several million Americans and being the centre of all political activity in the nation. Instead, they are currently represented by a delegate to Congress, who has no voting rights, whilst the Mayor of D.C. acts almost in an equivalent capacity to a state governor, with the position currently being held by Muriel Bowser.

Photo: Washington D.C.

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