There are 85,000 different units or types of government in America. These units  range from the Federal government which has power over the whole of America in certain areas stated in the Constitution to the Special District and Regional governments which are very much at a local level. America puts a great deal of faith in political power at a regional and local level and such power is jealously guarded against any deemed intrusion by the Federal government. The eight types of government are:


The Federal government
States governments
County, borough and parish governments
City governments
Township governments
School District governments
Special District governments
Regional governments



The Constitution makes it very clear the role that the Federal government has within America itself. It also makes clear what the states can do and what they cannot do. The Federal government has control over foreign and defence policies, monetary policy and the maintenance of a postal service.

There are 50 state governments in America. Each of them is guaranteed a republican form of government, certain rights and limited sovereignty by the Constitution. Each state has its own Constitution (though according to a report in 1992, 52% of all Americans were unaware of this for their own state) and the government of each state is established under this state-oriented constitution. The District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands and American Samoa are not states but they do have certain powers of self-government and they can send non-voting delegates (but not representatives) to the House of Representatives.

State government power over local power bases is enshrined in law. In 1868, Judge John Dillon in ‘City of Clinton v Cedar rapids and Missouri Rail Company’ stated that local governments:


“are creatures, mere political subdivisions, of a state for the purpose of exercising a part of its powers. They may exert only such powers as are expressly granted to them or such as may be necessarily implied from those granted.”



What became known as ‘Dillon’s Rule’ is complicated in its practical application. It has allowed states to grant local governments measures of home rule, though this will differ from state to state. This is essentially a devolution of power from the state capitals to cities – known as Home Rule. Some cities have a great deal of Home Rule courtesy of this process, others are given specified functions that they can carry out while others have power over personnel policies. The amount of power devolved to counties by the states also differs.

The responsibilities of the 19,000 city governments typically include fire, police, street maintenance and cleaning, water and sewage services, public works libraries and the inspection and regulation of a wide range of commercial activities, health and welfare. The definition of city has meant that some cities may coincide with county boundaries and spread beyond them while some large cities may form part of a metropolitan area.

There are more than 20,000 township governments in 20 states. They are only of significance in 11 states. They are concentrated in Minnesota, Wisconsin, New York and the states of New England. Their power is directed towards the police, highways, parks, recreation and refuse collections.

There are 14,400 elected school districts governments in America. Local control is frequently considered the most distinctive aspect of education policy in America. These single-purpose governments provide substantial independence in both administration and revenue raising. The Federal government provides just 6% of expenditure on elementary and secondary education. The rest has to be provided by state or local sources. The school governments have the power to ban certain subjects as happened in the 1920’s when the theory of evolution was banned in the mid-Western states (though this also had state support) and the Biblical story of the creation of Man had to be taught. In recent years, President Clinton has stated his belief that discipline and attitude in schools would be improved if all pupils wore a proper school uniform. A few school governments in California, for example, have followed this but it cannot be enforced across the country as the law as stated in the Constitution would not allow for this.

In 1990’s, there were 33,000 special district governments in America. These have a specified purpose (usually just one or two) established under state law. They can be called authorities, boards or commissions. Their role includes the operation of local parks, hospitals and public housing. If one exists within an area of agricultural importance, it might have a specialised role concerning agriculture. The same would be true of a commercial area.

Regional governments have been used by two or more states to deal with issues that cross over state lines. The same is true for issues that cross over local government lines. They administer public facilities such as public transport.

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