Dissecting the State: The Use of Federal Law to Free State and Local Officials from State Legislatures’ Control

In discussions about American federalism, it is common to speak of a “state government” as if it were a black box, an individual speaking with a single voice. State governments are, of course, no such thing. Rather, a “state” actually incorporates a bundle of different subdivisions, branches, and agencies controlled by politicians who often compete with each other for electoral success and governmental power. In particular, these institutions compete with each other for the power to control federal funds and implement federal programs. This article explores one aspect of this intrastate competition – the extent to which federal law can delegate federal powers to specific state or local institutions even against the will of the state legislature. Must the federal government take state institutions as it finds them, or can it expand these institutions’ powers even in the teeth of state laws that seem to bar the institutions from exercising such federally derived powers?