THE ROLE OF GOVERNMENT IN A DEMOCRACY

Happy 4th of July from Facts Not Opinions. We hope this article helps you understand what we started building back in 1776





Throughout U.S. history there has been a debate between limited and expansive government. This debate of limited and expansive government at the local, state and national levels has varied depending on audience. Limited government in a country restricts the laws and policies that can be created and gives greater freedom to businesses and individuals. The more limited the government, the higher the level of free market systems and the lower the level of public services. A list of country rankings can be found on Statista illustrating that Singapore, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Australia, and Switzerland have the highest levels of economic freedom from governmental constraint. Take a moment to see where the U.S. ranks and think about what that means for support of government programs.


An argument for limited government is that if there is a need that is not provided by government the public sector will provide them. A limited government will only be involved in the bare necessities of its citizens.


An expansive government has more authority to create laws and policies, and exerts more control over its citizens. Expansive government will have more influence on the military, healthcare, religion, and economic involvement such as sanctions and subsidies. Depending on country, the amount of money spent per citizen and what it is spent on differs greatly, and there is a vast gulf between the amount of money spent in countries with limited government versus countries with bigger government.


The debate between limited and expansive government really played an important role when the original framers drafted the Constitution of the United States.The framers, coming off of the heels of a kingdom in England, created a much more restrained federal government, with a higher emphasis on states’ rights. Over the last 200 years, the role of the federal government has increased dramatically often in contradiction to local and state governments. Policy evaluators must remain aware of the concerns regarding the scope of government.


History of Power Balance Between Federal and State Governments


This video explains how Article II of the United States Constitution allows for three separate branches of government





Prior to the Civil War the states dominated the power balance in the United States over the federal government. Many people prior to 1860 believed that state rights were so powerful, the states could reject and override federal law, nullifying their power. In fact, they believe state rights were so powerful, they could secede from the country if they disagreed with a federal mandate. This assertion was put to a test in the Civil War. Were states’ rights more powerful than those afforded to the federal government? The answer was no. The Union victory over the Confederacy allowed the federal government to expand its role in the United States.

Between the end of the Civil War and until the stock market crash of 1929, the federal government’s power was still relatively restricted. In 1907, government’s total spending was 6.61% of the Gross Domestic Product, compared to 45.19% in 2009. The framers of the constitution originally created a federal government primarily concerned with safety and individual liberty.

In 1929 the United States entered the Great Depression after the stock market crashed. At First, President Hoover believed that the market would correct itself and that success at the top of a business would trickle down to the average worker, so he advocated for less control from the federal government. Unfortunately, Hoover’s prediction did not come true and unemployment continued to rise. In 1933Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president. In an attempt to pull the United States out of the Great Depression, he instituted the New Deal, which created social security, increased oversight and regulation concerning commerce and banking, and dramatically increased the size and power of the federal government.


The following video provides a short introduction to Franklin Roosevelt's "New Deal" programs which he put in place after winning the presidency.




Early legislation from the New Deal

Emergency Banking Act

Banks were closed and only allowed to open after being reviewed.

Government Economy Act

Cut pay of government employees by 15% and spending by 25%

Beer-Wine Revenue Act

Legalized beer and wine and set up taxation system, 21st amendment.

Civilian Conservation Corps

Program designed to conserve publicly owned lands. 3 million workers

Federal Emergency Relief Act

Created funds for education, construction, arts and agriculture

Agricultural Adjustment Act

Subsidized crops

Emergency Farm Mortgage Act

Provided loans to struggling farmers

Tennessee Valley Authority Act

Created power stations in the poorest area in the nation

Securities Act

Required information to be provided to investors prior to stocks being issued.

Home Owners Refinancing Act

Refinanced loans to slow foreclosures

Glass-Steagall Banking Act

Separated retail and investment banking

National Industrial Recovery Act

Created public works jobs through the public works administration


What Powers are Reserved for the State and Federal Governments and What Powers are Shared

The 10th Amendment to the Constitution grants all powers not granted to the federal government to the state governments. These powers are then further divided between city and county governments. An interesting difference between the federal and state government is that almost every state’s constitution includes a balanced budget provision that mandates that a state is not allowed to spend more than it’s income. The federal government has maintained a debt since 1789, excluding the time period from 1835 to 1836 when the nation briefly paid off it’s national debt.


State Powers

  • Police

  • Schools

  • Issuing licenses

  • Conducting Elections

  • Intrastate Commerce

  • Local Government Control

Federal Powers

  • Postal Service

  • Foreign Commerce

  • Foreign Affairs

  • Coining Money

  • Raising Armies

  • Declaring Wars

Shared Powers

  • Taxation

  • Lawmaking

  • Chartering Banks

  • Creating Courts

  • Eminent Domain

This video discusses Federal and state powers and the 10th and 14th amendments.



Interbranch Relations


The federal government of the United States is made up of the legislative branch, executive branch and judicial branch, thus separating the major powers of the federal government. This separation of powers was created very intentionally to restrict any particular branch from becoming too strong. This idea of this separation of powers and limited government is so innate to the United States that 80% of the individual states have the same three branches of government.


The legislative branch of government has the power to create, change or eliminate laws, and even alter the Constitution through amendments. Legislators represent smaller localized constituents, like their states (senators) or a portion of their states (representatives), as opposed to officials elected to the executive branch, who represent the country. Policy initiatives in the legislative branch, often stem from local needs. The legislative branch has the ability to add laws, change laws and even change the constitution through constitutional amendments

In brief, the executive branch, made up of the president, cabinet, and administrative agencies, has the ability to influence legislation (policy) via veto power and also through the regulations promulgated by administrative agencies that detail how the laws are to be implemented. The executive branch can also impact policy by issuing executive orders, creating tariffs and commanding the military.


The judicial branch, judges and the court system, affects and effects policy through its interpretation of the Constitution and laws. The power of judicial review allows courts to determine the constitutionality of state and federal laws, and how, and to what extent, the laws apply to specific circumstances.


This video discusses the US Governments Separation of powers and the system of checks and balances.






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