Lloyd Omdahl: The United States has outgrown federalism

Just as in the days of the Articles of Confederation we are now faced with problems that are not being solved in a federal system.

Lloyd Omdahl, use online, horizontal.jpg
Lloyd Omdahl

When the Articles of Confederation proved inadequate for dealing with the critical problems left after the 1783 armistice with England, the leading colonists advocated a national meeting of colonial delegates to amend the Articles.

After several years of jerks and starts, the 1787 convention came to order and 55 delegates worked through the steamy Philadelphia summer to negotiate solutions for the weaknesses of the Confederation.

Horse-and-buggy government: The creation of federalism by granting specific powers to the federal government and reserving all other powers to the states worked quite well for the first decades when horse-and-buggy was the means of transportation and most business was local.

As time passed, the Supreme Court was asked to take a second look at the traditional interpretations of the commerce clause, the general welfare clause, equal protection clause, among others. So the definition of federalism has been expanded to deal with new unforeseen problems arising out of nationalization of the country.

America is nationalized: However, the American economy, society and culture have become so national that the fragmentation of a 1787 federal system no longer serves the people adequately. The structure of the government ought to facilitate, rather than delay or obstruct the prosperity and happiness of the people.


At the present time, groups have come into existence with the goal of changing the Constitution. A number of states have signed on to the proposal to have two-thirds of the state legislatures call a constitutional convention. Other folks want to junk the Electoral College for direct election of the president.

Convention suggestions: Then there are others that want to reverse the Supreme Court decision declaring corporations people for purposes of contributing to campaigns. Another group wants a convention limited to adding an amendment requiring a balanced budget at the federal level.

Support and opposition to all of these convention proposals has been bipartisan, with the John Birch Society and the Eagle Forum against and the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council in favor. States have been so divided on the proposals that they have been withdrawing their consent as fast as new supporters have appeared.

Most of the dialogue about forcing a call of various conventions is not relevant to the greater question of redesigning the national government to manifest the national complexion of our economy and society. National issues have become more important than state issues.

Federalism failed: The failure of federalism is well documented by our recent experience with the muddled management of COVID-19 at all levels of government. President Donald Trump put federalism to the test when he delegated the COVID-19 pandemic to the states.

States became enemies as they tried to outbid each other for medical supplies needed to fight COVID-19. Then the federal government got into the act and was competing with the states.

Responses to the pandemic varied radically from one state to the next. Some states closed their doors to out-of-staters. Masking rules were inconsistent, with governors fighting local governments.

Good road show: It would have made a great road show but the cast was too big.


It would be funny except some experts estimate that federalism and its implementers caused 300,000 of the COVID deaths.

A federal system spawns a lot of piecemeal policy. Because federalism requires the mobilization of a high level public support, processes are slow and cumbersome.

But just as in the days of the Articles of Confederation we are now faced with problems that are not being solved in a federal system.

It will take a national government to develop universal health care, to cope with earth warming, to respond effectively to natural disaster, to finance the infrastructure, to secure equal rights for all, and to cope with unforeseen crises.

All of these will require a greater sense of community.

Lloyd Omdahl is a former North Dakota lieutenant governor and professor at UND.

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