“The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, selfappointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.” ~ James Madison, 4th President of the United States
“No country can be called free which is governed by an absolute power; and it matters not whether it be an absolute royal power or an absolute legislative power, as the consequences will be the same to the people.” ~ Thomas Paine, Author and revolutionary
Within the complexities of American government, it’s crucial to understand the intricate balance of powers between different levels of government. One key concept in this balance is that of "concurrent powers." They not only play a pivotal role in the functioning of our government, but also underscore the importance of staying informed and engaged at all levels of governance.
Join us as we dive into what concurrent powers are, provide examples of concurrent powers, and discuss the critical role of state and local governments in meeting the needs of the people.
We most often think of the distribution of governmental powers in terms of the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of the federal government. However, even the concept of three distinct and co-equal branches of government has been under attack since the development of the Unitary Executive Theory under Ronald Reagan, which some plan to have implemented fully by the dictates of Project 2025 under whichever Republican is elected to the presidency next.
This is something that should chill any freedom-loving American to the core. The threat of too much power concentrated into the hands of any individual or institution is counter to the motives for the U.S. Revolution, and that concept was solidified in our Constitution.
The U.S. Constitution also codifies a similar measure to protect Americans from tyranny: the concept of concurrent powers that are shared to varying, sometimes overlapping, degrees between the state and federal governments.
Concurrent powers are political powers that are exercised by both state and federal governments in the United States. These powers are contrasted with reserved powers (exclusive to state governments) and delegated powers (exclusive to the federal government). They’re outlined in the Supremacy Clause, in sections of Article 1, and in the 10th and 18th amendments. The 18th Amendment, which codified Prohibition, is the only part of the Constitution that specifically uses the term “concurrent powers.”
The beauty of concurrent powers lies in their ability to allow different layers of government to operate effectively within the same sphere of authority, fostering a system of co-governance that is essential for such a vast and diverse country as the United States.
Throughout the history of our country, politicians, pundits, and the people themselves have lamented about the encroachment of the federal government into our laws and lives. This concept was a motivating factor for how we constructed our government institutions and assigned power after the Revolutionary War, and it was put to the test in the events leading up to the Civil War.
Since those times, the limits of state versus local powers have been tested in court in cases like McCulloch v. Maryland, which answered whether Congress had the right to establish a bank in the state and whether Maryland usurped Congressional power by taxing it. The case of Pacific Gas and Electric v. The State Energy Resources Conservation and Development Commission answered the question of whether a state had the right to regulate in-state development of nuclear energy plants or not, according to the terms of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954.
Just this year, we have an example of what happens when the Supremacy Clause is challenged. The Texas border, a busy entry point for those coming from South and Central America, is inundated with people trying to get into the United States.
The governor of Texas, claiming that the federal government is failing in its duty to secure the Southern border, placed razor wire and booby-trapped buoys across the Rio Grande along the entry point for many migrants.
However, this blocks access needed by border agents to do their job.
On January 13, 2024, a migrant woman and her two children drowned trying to cross the river, and border agents could only watch as they tried to get through the razor wire barrier to rescue them. In an attempt to resolve the conflict, the Biden Administration petitioned the Supreme Court, who ruled against the state and ordered the wire and other barriers removed. Texas is standing firm and refuses to comply.
This story is still unfolding as of this writing.
The idea of concurrent powers was to have a unified central apparatus in place to deal with the overall function and structure of the U.S. government, but to empower the states and their citizens with the ability to best determine many factors that affect their daily lives.
This is imperative in a country that spans 3,400 miles of mainland, 50 states, 16 foreign territories, and a diverse population of just under 331.5 million as of the last U.S. census.
To put this concept into perspective, here are some tangible examples of concurrent powers in action:
Taxation: Both the state and federal governments have the authority to levy taxes. While the federal government imposes income tax, states can also collect their own taxes in the form of income, sales, or property taxes.
Building and Maintaining Infrastructure: Both levels of government play a role in transportation infrastructure. The federal government might fund and oversee interstate highways, while state and local governments manage local roads and bridges.
Establishing Courts: Both state and federal governments have the authority to establish and maintain their own court systems. This ensures that legal matters can be addressed at both the state and federal levels.
Borrowing Money: Both levels of government can borrow money, which is vital for funding various projects and managing financial emergencies.
Law Enforcement: Both federal and state governments have their own law enforcement agencies. They often collaborate but also operate independently within their respective jurisdictions.
The concept of concurrent powers highlights the importance of state and local governments in our daily lives. This essential nature was outlined by James Madison in Federalist #37 when he wrote:
"The State governments would clearly retain all the rights of sovereignty which they before had, and which were not, by that act, exclusively delegated to the United States."
State governmental institutions often have a more direct impact on our day-to-day experiences than the Federal government, and local politicians tend to know more about the needs of their constituents than a distant, central authority.
They’re also more directly invested in the outcomes of their policies. Ideally, they’re more accountable as well.
Because local and state officials are more closely attuned to the needs of their constituents than someone who spends the majority of their time in Washington or pondering issues of national and international importance, the separation of powers between state and national governments, and within the branches of the federal government, is essential.
From schools to local law enforcement and from road maintenance to health regulations, state and local governments play a crucial role in shaping our communities. Understanding and participating in state and local elections improves civic engagement by allowing citizens to have a more immediate and significant impact on their environment.
Staying informed about the legislation and activities at the state and local levels is essential for effective civic engagement. State and local governments often pass laws and implement policies that directly affect our communities. By staying informed, citizens can better understand these impacts and voice their opinions or concerns.
Supported by voter education, this level of civic involvement is critical for a healthy democracy.
Here are a few simple ways to remain informed and engaged with your state and local government:
Stay updated. Receive the latest information on state legislation and civic issues. You can do this by joining local online forums, signing up for newsletters, and following local news.
Engage in meaningful discussions. Share your views and learn from others about important topics. You can do this both online and in person. However, make sure to curate and verify online groups and sources and keep political conversations civil and fruitful.
Participate in grassroots movements. Get involved in or start grassroots campaigns on issues that matter to you and your community.
Connect with local leaders. Engage with local political leaders and influencers to make your voice heard. Nearly every campaign needs volunteers, so see where you can get involved!
Empower yourself and others. Gain the knowledge and tools to be a more effective citizen and help others do the same. You can find free resources at local chambers of commerce, your state’s Secretary of State website, candidate and political websites, and through online search.
Concurrent powers are a fundamental aspect of the United States’ federal system, ensuring that both state and federal governments can operate effectively and responsively. Understanding these powers and the role of state and local government is key to being an informed citizen.
By staying informed and getting involved in local government, you can make a significant impact in your community and beyond. Remember, every small step can lead to a stronger, more vibrant democracy. Join us at Good Party, and let’s make a difference together.
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