Lowering US drinking age - Congressional pressure

Reference this story in today’s Guardian:

US states consider lowering drinking age

The bit that caught my eye was this:

As an Englishman I’m not up on the exact demarcations of State/Federal power but at first glace this seems like gross bullying by Congress in a matter which surely is the business of each individual State.

Who decides just what is the business of the State and what the business of the federal authority? Couldn’t Congress be challenged on Constitutional grounds if it tries the same tactics again now that several States are considering lowering the age limit? Can Congress really use what amounts to blackmail and get away with it?

It is.

The Constitution and case law regarding its interpretation does. The Federal government has the ability to tax and to spend the money on federal programs like the Interstate highway system; it also can make grants to states for various purposes. They often use the threat of funding changes to “persuade” the states to comply with some mandate that they would otherwise be unable to effect through legislation (such as drinking ages.)

Sure, but it’s unlikely that the challenger would win.


I’ve often wondered what’s stopping one of the really small New England states- Delaware or Rhode Island or one of the other states you could drive a golf ball clear across :wink: - from just saying “You know what? We don’t care about your steenken’ funding money for all 30 miles of Federal Highways in the state; we’re going to have a drinking age of 18 anyway.”

Congress also did the exact same thing with the uniform dui law at .08

I believe the same tactics were used for years to keep the 55 mph speed limit.

Hopefully, since the speed limit is no longer subject to this blackmail, the drinking age laws can be made more sensible. However, MADD is a very powerful lobby.

It was more a bullying by the president, he’s the one that always uses it as a threat. The federal portion of the highway funding is a big chunk of money, and they have used it on other occasions to get states to do what they want. The first major bullying I remember is Regan and his 21 year old minimum drinking campaign. The same group in office that came up with the just say no for school children campaign. :rolleyes: Wisconsin was one of the states that fought this drinking age change, because most in this state felt if you are and adult for draft purposes and every other adult activity, legal drinking should be at 18 too. The fight in a war bit was very strong, because most people alive at that time had strong memories of draft, war and the large number of dead solders that were still teens. People were much stronger opinioned about maintaining their constitutional rights, and fighting the government on stuff like the crap that was pushed through after 9/11.

Yeah, that was my first awareness of Federal bullying as well. I had already turned 21 so it did not affect me, but I was fresh enough out of college that it really pissed me off. What made it more distasteful was that Reagan kept proclaiming before this that he wanted to reduce the interference the Federal government had on the individual states. Yup, good bit of hypocritical behavior. Then seeing Bush making the same play with the DUI and Fed transportation funding decades later just added to the burn.

You’re obviously too young to remember the 55-mile-per-hour speed limit.

Federal transportation funds pay for more than “federal highways.” They also fund a variety of local road projects, bike trails, public transit, etc. Usually they are only a portion of such funding, but they are a fairly significant portion.

States could, however, turn this money down and do as they please. They just want the money, however, and with the money comes federal rules. That’s how the feds are able to tell states what to do with schools, too.

When you decide to take the federal money you have to abide by their rules, for better or worse. Paying the piper, calling the tune and all that.

Still, remember the Federal money doesn’t come from their account at the Fairyland bank. It comes from the taxpayers of that state and the other 49 states.

the speed limit is still subject to blackmail, Montana had to institute day time speed limits recently to get funding for highway projects…is there another state with no daytime speed limits?

They collect the same amount of money regardless if the state gets it back. Your sate pays in and you can’t have the money unless you do what they want. withholding highway funds is somewhat reasonable when dealing with roads like the 55 mph limit that I thought sucked. It’s when they hold it ransom for non road issues that they definitely cross the line.

The thing is, the Federal government has been challenged on constitutional grounds and the Supreme Court decided that the challengers were wrong.


One key facet of why the Supreme Court decided the way it did is that withholding 5% of highway funds was deemed to be “pressure” but not “blackmail,” as you put it. So if a state wanted to change its drunk driving laws or the drinking age, they’d lose one nickel out of every highway dollar they currently receive. There is a misperception (not mentioned in this thread, but commonly found elsewhere) that states would lose all their highway funding.

I remember Wyoming was the last holdout, and only finally changed on the drop dead date for the funds. There was a serious movement within the state legislature to tell the Federal Govt. to fuck off and keep their highway funds, and let I-80* fall to pieces. I wish they had, hehe, but it fell just short.

  • For those who don’t know Wyoming, It is one of the big, flat, empty states. and I-80 is the major trucking corridor from the northeast and widwest to Northern California, and when I-70 is closed, Southern California too. It would have inconvienced the rest of the country as much as the Wyomingites, and was a decent barganing chip I thought. :slight_smile: