Measuring Centralization and "Power Shift"

Political scientists have focused, for understandable reasons, on changes or threats to the "separation of powers" among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The enormous volume of scholarship on separation of powers tends to obscure and overshadow research on the "vertical" separation of powers, or federalism. As many scholars have shown in recent years, the vertical distribution of powers is of vital importance to the understanding of American government (Bowman and Krause 2003, p. 302). 

How has the distribution changed over time, and how can we go beyond the standard measures of spending and employment share? 

Below, we present samples of the most important efforts by scholars in recent decades to measure or track shifts in power to the national government away from states and localities. 

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Federal Outlays

Employment Share

IMF Data

Power Shift



Policy Centralization

Scholars Ann O'M. Bowman and George A. Krause have analyzed patterns of policy centralization by the federal government over time. The figure below represents a sophisticated "score" for combined public laws and executive orders, from 1947-1998. The authors show, that while there have been decentralizing "pushes" at times, the "pulls have been far more powerful than the pushes." The analysis below challenges the assertion of scholars who claim that power has shifted toward states and localities since the postwar era.  

For this data, the CCS Federalism Index would like to acknowledge the help of scholars Ann O'M. Bowman and George A. Krause, for access to the original data. The following represents our attempt to summarize one measure or one section of this rich, sophisticated analysis by the researchers. As there is no substitute for engaging with the original published research, we encourage readers to consult the original source, which can be accessed here: Bowman, Ann O'M., and George A. Krause. "Power Shift: Measuring Policy Centralization in U.S. Intergovernmental Relations, 1947-1998."American Politics Research 31, no. 3 (May 2003): 301-25. doi:10.1177/1532673X03251381.


  • While the vertical distribution of powers is fundamental to understanding American federalism, most attempts to measure this distribution are qualitative. Measures of "national-state power shifts" must be constructed

  • The authors take a crucial first step in providing an annual time series measure of policy centralization, using an aggregate score of selected U.S. public laws and executive orders from 1947-1998

  • Data is drawn from public laws and executive orders found in the United States Statutes at Large and the Federal Register. The authors coded each law or executive order, with a view to measuring the degree to which the federal government "seeks to centralize authority over its intergovernmental policies and programs" 

  • Generally speaking, the authors find that while centralization has been the dominant theme, there is "substantial variation from one year to another." 

  • The greatest amount of decentralization occurred under Republican presidents, although the extent of this "centrifugal shift" has been modest 

  • The authors conclude that this evidence "supports the common view since the end of World War II that the balance of power has shifted toward the government and away from subnational levels" 

  • Theorized trends toward greater decentralization does not seem to be supported by the data, at least when examining public laws and executive orders

  • Patterns of centralization do not seem to have changed, despite background "philosophical change" suggested by the rhetoric of devolution (citing, e.g., Donahue 1997; Greve 1999)