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Unitary System

A centralized governmental system in which local or subdivisional governments exercise only those powers given to them by the central government.

Confederal System

A system consisting of a league of independent states, each having essentially sovereign powers. The central government created by such a league has only limited powers over the states.

Enumerated Powers

Powers specifically granted to the national government by the Constitution. The first seventeen clauses of Article I, Section 8, specify most of the enumerated powers of the national government.

Elastic Clause, of Necessary and Proper Clause

The clause in Article I, Section 8, that grants Congress the power to do whatever is necessary to execute its specifically delegated powers.

Police power

The authority to legislate for the protection of the health, morals, safety, and welfare of the people. In the United States, most police power is reserved to the states.

Concurrent powers

Powers held jointly by the national and state governments.

Supremacy Clause

The constitutional provision that makes the Constitution and federal laws superior to all conflicting state and local laws.

Interstate Compact

An agreement between two or more states. Agreements on minor matters are made without congressional consent, but any compact that tends to increase the power of the contracting states relative to other states or relative to the national government generally requires the consent of Congress. Such compacts serve as a means by which states can solve regional problems.

Commerce Clause

The section of the Constitution in which Congress is given the power to regulate trade among the states and with foreign countries.

Dual Federalism

A system in which the states and the national government each remain supreme within their own spheres. The doctrine looks on nation and state as co-equal sovereign powers. Neither the state government nor the national government should interfere in the other's sphere.

Cooperative Federalism

The theory that the states and the national government should cooperate in solving problems.

Picket-Fence Federalism

A model of federalism in which specific programs and polices (depicted as vertical pickets in a picket fence) involve all levels of government----national, states, and local (depicted by the horizontal boards in a picket fence).

Categorical Grants

Federal grants to states or local governments that are for specific programs or projects.

Block Grants

Federal programs that provide funds to state and local governments for general functional areas, such as criminal justice or mental-health programs.

Federal Mandate

A requirement in federal legislation that forces states and municipalities to comply with certain rules.


The transfer of powers from a national or central government to a state or local government.

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