Teaching American Politics: Federalism in Practice


Federalism in Practice

Claire Abernathy (Stockton University), Zach Baumann (Nebraska Wesleyan University), Nick Kapoor (Fairfield University)

Our goal was to develop a one-day federalism lesson plan that integrates active learning and emphasizes civic engagement into an Introduction to American Politics course. This lesson can also be tailored to a university’s appropriate state and local context. We hope that other political science educators will share and contribute their own federalism lesson plans.

Learning Objectives: By the end of this lesson, students should…

  • Understand basic responsibilities and powers of legislative bodies at the local, state and federal levels
  • Identify their representatives at the local, state and federal level and how to connect with them

View this resource in a PDF powerpoint presentation.

75-minute class session

1-2 minutes Motivating Question/Introduction
10-15 minutes Congress Mini-Lecture
5-10 minutes Congress Activity
10-15 minutes State Legislatures Mini-Lecture
5-10 minutes State Legislatures Activity
10-15 minutes Local Legislatures Mini-Lecture
5-10 minutes Local Legislatures Activity
15-20 minutes  Who Solves My Problem? 


Legislature at the Federal Level: 

Congress Lecture (Outline)
  1. Structure of Congress
  2. Powers defined in Article I of the Constitution
  3. Qualifications to hold office in Congress
  4. Current demographics of House and Senate
  5. Congress as professionalized legislature (full-time, staff support, etc.)
  6. How you can engage with Congress

Bicameral legislature

  • House of Representatives - 435 members who represent the population of congressional districts within states.
  • Senate - 100 members, two for each state, who represent the population of their states.

Powers defined in Article I of the Constitution

Policymaking and Casework responsibilities

Qualifications to hold office in Congress

  • House of Representatives - At least 25 years old, a citizen for at least 7 years, and living in the state they represent
  • Senate - At least 30 years old, a citizen for at least 9 years, and living in the state they represent
Learning Objectives
  • Understand basic responsibilities and powers of House and Senate
  • Recognize what issues fall within Congress’s jurisdiction
  • Identify Representative and Senator
  • Practice researching actions taken by Members of Congress
Legislature at the Federal Level: Congress (Activity!)

Who represents you in the House and Senate? 

  • We are each represented by one Representative (who represents the congressional district we live in) and two Senators (who represent the state we live in)
  • Find your Representative and Senators

What have your Representative and Senators been working on recently? Visit their websites to find out! 

Legislature at the State Level

State Legislature Lecture (Outline)
  1. State policymaking authority is found in the US Constitution, their own constitutions, and the actions of courts
  2. State legislatures are not all the same—what does yours look like?
  3. States vary in who is qualified to serve and who holds office—what does this look like in your state?
  4. States vary in their capacity to engage in policymaking and oversight.
Learning Objectives
  • States make a number of policy decisions that affect our daily lives
  • States vary in who holds office and is allowed to serve 
  • States vary in their policymaking capacity 
  • Identify—and know how to contact—your state legislator
Legislature at the State Level:

The capacity of state legislatures to create policy and conduct oversight varies 

  • Staff they are allowed to hire 
  • Salary (ability to treat lawmaking as a full-time job)
  • Length of their sessions 

In the absence of policymaking capacity, legislators may turn to information from governors, bureaucrats, and lobbyists. Legislators must be strategic in determining where to spend their time/resources. How does this affect your strategy for approaching your state lawmaker?

Legislature at the State Level (Activity!)

Who represents you in the state legislature? 

  • Go to the website of your state legislature and find your elected representatives. 
  • Identify a way of contacting their office (email, phone number, physical address). 

What have they been up to lately? 

  • Use the state legislature’s website to search bill introductions—what has your member sponsored/cosponsored?

Government at the Local Level

Government at the Local Level (Outline)
  • Structure of Local Government (City/County) ~90,000 local governments (Executive, Legislative, “Other Bodies”)
  • Local Charters/Governing Documents (Local “Constitutions”)
  • Who are local politicians?
  • Give local government context in your state
  • How you can engage with your local government
Learning Objectives
  • Understand the widely varied nature of local government across the United States
  • Why would a student call a member of the local government?
  • Identify local legislators or Mayor
  • Find out how to contact local officials
Government at the Local Level - Connecticut    (Sample State)
  • Connecticut is one of 2.5 states that do not have county government (RI and Western MA being the other 1.5). 
  • Every single municipality (town/city) in Connecticut from the largest (Bridgeport - pop. 148,654) to the smallest (Union - pop. 785) has a Chief Executive Officer - an elected Mayor or First Selectman, or an appointed Town Manager that runs the town.
  • Every single municipality in Connecticut has a local legislature in one of three forms: 
    • City Council/Town Council/Board of Alderman (typically 7 - 13 members, larger in the cities)
    • Representative Town Meeting (larger bodies - typically 30 - 230)
    • Town Meeting (all town residents) 
  • All local elections in Connecticut are partisan. This is unusual.
  • The average budget in a CT municipality is 66% Education and 34% municipal.

Government at the Local Level: Activity!

Try to find the local (county or town/city) government website for your hometown.* 

*If you live outside of the United States, feel free to find representatives that represent you in the locality of your home country, or if those people cannot be found, feel free to use the national government from your home country. 

Find members of the local legislature of your local government and their last agenda. What were they talking about? Anything interesting? 

Think about a few particular problems that you would send to a local official in your town and/or county.

Who Solves My Problem? (Activity!)

In this activity, students will decide which level of government is the most appropriate to address different problems. 

  1. Present students with mock problems and discuss which level should address each problem
  2. Have students (anonymously) write down a problem they have that local, state or federal legislature could address
  3. Collect student problems and compile on the board or using technology like Quip or Padlet
  4. In small groups, students discuss which problem goes to which level of government
  • Jake is worried about the effects of climate change and he wants to make it easier for people to cut back on their own carbon emissions. He’s interested in seeing new programs to incentivize people to buy electric cars and to build more electric car charging stations across the country.  
  • On a walk at the park, Alyssa saw that seniors were having trouble crossing a busy road from a side street where resident park their cars to the main park area. She would like to see a crosswalk installed and perhaps an additional stop sign to slow traffic down and allow people to cross the road safely. 
  • You’re concerned that polls open on Election Day at 8:00 a.m., making it difficult for those with families to participate. You would like the polls to open at 7:00 a.m. so people can vote before going to work. 
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