Dead or Alive? The Federalism Revolution and Its Meaning for Public Administration

Date01 September 2009
Published date01 September 2009
Big Questions
Facing Public
Robert K. Christensen
University of North Carolina–Charlotte
Charles R. Wise
Ohio State University
Dead or Alive?  e Federalism Revolution and Its Meaning
for Public Administration
Robert K. Christensen is an assistant
professor of political science and serves
the master of public administration and
PhD in public policy programs at University
of North Carolina–Charlotte. Interested
in institutional precursors of public and
nonprof‌i t performance, his research focuses
on the intersection of public law, policy,
and public and nonprof‌i t administration.
He is a past recipient of the John A. Rohr
Charles R. Wise is director of the
John Glenn School of Public Affairs and a
professor of public affairs at the Ohio State
University. He has served as managing
editor of
Public Administration Review
and has received the William E. Mosher
and Frederick C. Mosher Award for best
article in the
Public Administration Review
three times.
Federalism jurisprudence shapes the powers that
public administrators have to achieve policy priorities.
Federalism, however, is neither static nor simplistic as a
concept, and a proper understanding of the environment
in which public administrators work rests on a careful
analysis of U.S. Supreme Court decisions.  e authors
review claims that a 2005 decision, Gonzales v. Raich,
terminated a federalism revolution that had been ushered
in a decade earlier. Does Raich in fact mark the end of
the Supreme Court’s federalism doctrine? Analysis of this
question clarif‌i es whether the past and current Court
has articulated any direction touching on administrators
powers at both the national and state levels.  e
authors argue that before the federalism revolution is
declared dead or alive, public administration can better
understand the realities of the Supreme Court’s doctrinal
boundaries by examining a more detailed analysis of
jurisprudence for what is says about the foundations
of federalism such as the commerce clause, Fourteenth
Amendment, Tenth Amendment, Eleventh Amendment,
spending clause, and statutory interpretation issues.
Federalism is explicitly covered in many current
textbooks on public administration (e.g.,
Milakovich and Gordon 2007; Rosenbloom
and Kravchuck 2005; Starling 2007) as a funda-
mental part of the operating environment of public
administration. omas Anton (1989, 3) def‌i nes
federalism as the system of rules that divides public
responsibilities among various units of govern-
ment.  e U.S. Supreme Court has come to play an
important role in articulating that system of rules.  e
Supreme Court’s federalism
decisions are especially impor-
tant in understanding what
powers public managers have
to achieve policy priorities in
the current context of devolved
government (Wise 1998).
e Supreme Court’s role in
def‌i ning the framework of our
federal system has not always
been so active. Many summarize the Court’s federal-
ism doctrines as following a trend that has consist-
ently favored national authority since the 1800s.1
While there were several exceptions to this trend prior
to 1937,2 in that year, the Court, in National Labor
Relations Board v. Jones and Laughlin (301 U.S. 1),
returned with fervor to its practice of solidifying the
reach of congressional power.  e Court’s stance on
federalism from 1937 to 1995—with a notable com-
merce clause exception of National League of Cities
v. Usery, which was later overturned in Garcia v. San
Antonio Metropolitan Transportation Authority3—has
been called a period of “Constitution in exile.”  e
decision in Garcia particularly disappointed federalism
proponents because, in overturning Usery, the Garcia
majority stated that the principal limit on Congress’s
commerce power to regulate state functions is to be
found in state participation in the legislative process
of Congress, and not the federal courts (469 U.S. 556
[1984]).  at pronouncement seemed to crystallize
the “Constitution in exile.”  is refers to the Supreme
Court’s unwillingness “to enforce constitutional limits
on national power vis-à-vis the states” (Baker and
Young 2001, 75). Many scholars concluded that the
Court had merely abandoned its role in interpreting
the Constitution with regard to what it means for the
respective powers of the federal government and state
governments (Cooper 1988; Van Alstyne 1985).
However, the Court’s posture changed in the 1990s.
In a series of cases, the Supreme Court signaled a
change in the legal basis of intergovernmental rela-
tions that portended a shift in
the environment of public
administration (Dinan 1998;
Rosenbloom and Ross 1998;
Wise 1998). In 1995, the Su-
preme Court handed down one
particularly notable decision,
United States v. Lopez (514 U.S.
549 [1995]), that seemingly
broke with the decades-long
trend of consistently af‌f‌i rming
e Supreme Court’s federalism
decisions are especially
important in understanding
what powers public managers
have to achieve policy priorities
in the current context of
devolved government.
920 Public Administration Review • September | October 2009

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