When alcohol prohibition ended in 1933, almost every state made 21 their minimum legal drinking age, or MLDA. However, as the voting age was lowered to eighteen in many states, some began to lower their drinking age as well. Between 1970 and 1975, twenty-nine states lowered the drinking age to either 18, 19, or 20. As youth traffic accidents rose, Congressional Democrats and advocacy groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) argued the MLDA should again increase to 21.
Threats of cutting federal funding had been successfully used to push the federal government’s preferred policies onto the states. The potential of reduced highway funds was previously used to establish a maximum speed limit. This kind of financial leverage over state policy making is called fiscal federalism. Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Amendment to the Federal Aid Highway Act in 1984. Though President Ronald Reagan opposed the bill at first, he decided not to veto the bill, and it was enacted into law. Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Dole was directed to withhold 10% of federal highway funding if the state’s MLDA was under 21.
South Dakota’s MLDA was 19. The government of South Dakota challenged the law, arguing that Congress had exceeded its spending powers. In addition, the state argued that the federal law violated the 21st Amendment, which repealed alcohol prohibition. The Supreme Court was asked to determine if the National Minimum Drinking Age Amendment was constitutional.
The Court ruled in a 7-2 decision to uphold the National Minimum Drinking Age Amendment as within congressional spending powers. The Court decided that encouraging uniformity was a reasonable constitutional goal of the federal government, especially since it was in pursuit of the “general welfare.” The Court noted that youth traffic accidents were an interstate problem that warranted national solutions. Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote that the Constitution gives Congress the power to “lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts, and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States.” Therefore, Rehnquist concluded that Congress may make federal funding conditional. Since South Dakota was only losing five percent of its total highway funds, the Court did not find it an undue burden.
Rehnquist did note that there are limits to Congress’s spending power. The spending power must be used in regards to the “general welfare.” In addition, conditions on funding must be clearly stated so that states can determine whether they would like to abide by the conditions. The conditions are illegitimate if they are meant to promote a federal interest.
Finally, the majority decided that the amendment did not conflict with the 21st Amendment, which repealed the prohibition of alcohol in the 18th Amendment. The Court noted that the 21st Amendment did not state that Congress could not apply a minimum legal drinking age.
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote a dissenting opinion joined by Justice William J. Brennan. In her dissent, Justice O’Connor wrote that the Amendment did conflict with the 21st Amendment since it regulated liquor sales. O’Connor also noted that the MLDA of 21 is not strongly associated with interstate highway construction, so the relationship between the two is contrived. O’Connor stated that while the size of the government was growing, it must not “obscure its fundamental character.”
The breakdown of justices in South Dakota v. Dole was notable. Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice O’Connor were usually in agreement, as two staunch advocates for states’ rights. Also, Justice Brennan joining Justice O’Connor’s dissent was surprising since Justice Brennan was much more liberal than O’Connor, a noted conservative.
Since the Amendment was upheld, every state has shifted their MLDA to 21. Wyoming was the last state to change its age to 21. Holdouts in Wyoming argued that 19 and 20-year-olds would drink alcohol regardless of the legal drinking age, and the state would just lose money as a result. But ultimately, Wyoming decided to implement a 21-year-old drinking age since the state was losing eight to ten million dollars a year from the National Minimum Drinking Age Amendment.
Since the Amendment’s passage, drinking among high school seniors has fallen from 66% to 42%, according to the Federal Trade Commission Consumer Information. Binge drinking rates in teens have also fallen. The Act had an immediate impact as well: drunk driving arrests in the relevant age group fell 24% between 1983 and 1986.