Cooperative federalism is a political and constitutional concept developed in the early 20th century that emphasizes the decentralization of power and a not necessarily equal sharing of governmental responsibilities between federal, state and local agencies and institutions. National and state governments tackle issues together in a cooperative fashion as opposed to a system in which policy is imposed on local administrators by an all-powerful federal regime. As a result, both national and state governments are simultaneously independent and interdependent with an overlap of functions and financial resources, but it is difficult for one person or one institution to accumulate absolute power. In addition, this distribution of government provides multiple points of access for citizens interested in influencing state and federal institutions, laws and policies.
The idea was first introduced in the United States during the New Deal era of the 1930s and, as a result, the constitutional concept of dual federalism nearly disappeared. Under dual federalism, the U.S. national government was granted a limited number of powers with the states otherwise sovereign. The states were considered to be as powerful as the federal government within their respective political spheres and each was responsible for specific government functions that did not overlap. States with a vested interest in prolonging an economy based on slavery relied on dual federalism to support their rejection of federal government intervention.
In the New Deal era, cooperative federalism was best exemplified by federal grant-in-aid programs that encouraged state governments to implement programs funded by the national Congress. Instead of imposing a program nationally, the federal government offered significant financial resources to entice each state to implement and administer the program locally. The now canceled Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) is an example of a grant-in-aid program created in 1935 and administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. AFDC gave financial help to low-income families with children. Each state that agreed to participate received matching funds from the national government but was subject to federal regulations. Grant-in-aid programs were typically funded and designed by the federal government but administered by participating state governments.
It has been argued since that cooperative federalism in the United States has been slowly eroded by a series of presidents of both mainstream political parties — Republicans and Democrats — that have added discretionary powers to the federal executive branch. Opponents to this perceived expansion of federal power advocate for the autonomy and sovereignty of state governments as described in the Constitution’s 10th amendment. In addition to the United States, Australia, Canada and the European Union among other nations and political entities also practice variations of this form of government.