South Dakota argues that federal withholding of a small percentage of highway funds to states allowing public possession or purchase of alcohol by those under 21 years of age is unconstitutional.
Congress’ encouragement to the States to impose a minimum drinking age of 21 years is a constitutional use of the taxing and spending power.
23 U.S.C. Section 158 authorizes the federal government to withhold a percentage of federal highway funds otherwise available to states that allow the purchase or public possession of alcohol by individuals under 21 years of age. South Dakota allows individuals 19 and over to purchase certain types of alcohol. Thus, the Department of Transportation will withhold 5% of the federal highway funds earmarked for the state.
May Congress withhold funds from states that do not maintain a 21 year old drinking age?
The Court is not entitled to insist that States impose or change regulations because of an attenuated or tangential relationship to highway use or safety. If that were true, Congress could effectively regulate almost any area of a State’s social, political, or economic life.
First, the exercise of the spending power must promote the general welfare. 23 U.S.C. Section 158 promotes the general welfare because the lack of uniformity in the States’ drinking ages creates an incentive to drink and drive, since young persons would commute to border States where the drinking age is lower. Second, if Congress desires to condition the States’ receipt of federal funds, it must do so unambiguously. This element is met because Congress has clearly stated that States where a minimum drinking age lower than 21 lose a specific percentage of federal highway funds. Third, the conditions on federal grants must not be coercive. This element is also met because States only lose a relatively small percentage of federal highway funds.