Vertical and horizontal federalism are important aspects of America’s political structure. Of the identified forms of federalism, vertical and horizontal are considered to be the ones most commonly observed by analysts. 

The Constitution is an ambiguous document open to interpretation by all. Some political analyst such as Bowles considers this to be its greatest asset as it has survived a civil war, the abolition of slavery, migration and immigration problems, the development of America into a superpower and involving herself in world problems.

“It has a flexibility that has enabled it to survive, by ensuring its legitimacy in a heterogeneous society…………it has also ensured that agreement on the meaning of the provisions for relations between branches of the Federal government, Federal and State authorities, and for conflicts between competing rights of individuals resist definitive settlement.” (Bowles)

Bowles argues that if the Founding Fathers had wanted clarity within the Constitution they would not have created three separate government bodies; the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary. Nor would they have created two separate layers of government in the national and state set-up. Bowles claims that as the Constitution can mean all things to all people, then it is acceptable to America and ends the possibility of potential political conflict.

The Constitution has achieved three ends :

Federalism Separation of power Judicial review

These three achievements allow politicians to make government effective but prevents them from being oppressive. Each of the three bodies named above has a different source of power and therefore has different characteristics. Therefore they should not trespass into territory that is the domain of one of the other. However, the Judiciary as seen via the Supreme Court can do this legitimately if it feels that action by the Executive and the Congress is unconstitutional. The Constitution guarantees the rights of States and individuals against government. 

However, each body tends to work in co-operation with the other two and between 1990 and 1993, the Supreme Court only held three acts passed by the federal government to be unconstitutional. It is rare that this co-operation breaks down as it would look very poor that the most powerful people in the world’s leading superpower could not agree on issues. The example it would set and the knock-on impact it would have on the status of government would be dire.

Vertical Power:

The Constitution has granted to the Federal government power over foreign policy, defence, monetary policy and the regulation of commerce between the States. The rest of government is left, in theory, to the States and to local government which derive their authority from the States. 

Since the era of the New Deal when Roosevelt clashed with the Judiciary, the Supreme Court has been less active in defending the rights of States. However, their separate existence is guaranteed by the Constitution and they guard what they perceive to be their rights with vigour. But the States cannot be independent from the national government as they simply would not survive. They are interdependent and interactive with the Federal government bound together by complex financial and administrative patterns. The Constitution may separate the two but day-to-day life effectively joins them together.

Horizontal Power:

1. The Constitution forbids members of one branch of government belonging to another. The President (nor Cabinet Secretaries) cannot be a Senator nor a member of the House of Representatives or Supreme Court or a Federal judge.

2. Congress is entirely separate and politically independent from the Presidency, presidential staff, Cabinet Secretaries and political leaders of government agencies.

However, this separation is in theory as opposed to fact. For government at any level to be effective all bodies involved must co-operate. If there is no co-operation then government itself deteriorates and the branches of government involved in this will loose legitimacy in the eyes of the public. Therefore bargaining and negotiation are commonplace.

The President lacks direct power over the legislators. Except in very rare and unusual circumstances, the President cannot dissolve either House of Congress. The President is expected to present to Congress proposals for legislation they would favour. The President is required by law to present to Congress the Federal government’s annual budget. Congress can either pass or otherwise the President’s proposals and the President lacks both the power and the constitutional means to compel Congress to respond favourably. “Neither in law nor in practice is Congress the President’s creature.” (Bowles)

It has happened that Presidents have had executive power at a time when Congress has a majority of politicians in it that are from the other party. Bill Clinton, a Democrat, started his second term of office with the Republican Party having a majority in both houses. Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford (both Republicans) were President at the time of Democratic majorities in Congress. The President does not require the support of Congress to be President though to be effective he would need it if only to maintain credibility with the public.

The party system is much weaker in America than in Great Britain. Party leaders have few sanctions over elected members at any level. The Constitution has effectively separated the governing powers and the parties find it very difficult to combine them in normal circumstances. Only in times of crisis – such as in foreign policy – does the President have the opportunity to politically manoeuvre.

The structure of government in America has been labeled diffuse and fragmented as opposed to being concentrated. Conflict has occurred historically (the Civil War, segregation in education etc.) but co-operation is far more common.

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