Dole (SECRETARY OF TRANSPORTATION)
A statute directed the Secretary of Transportation to withhold
a portion of the federal high funds from states that did not
prohibit the purchase of alcohol by people under the age of
Congress used this technique because of uncertainty about it
power to impose a national minimum drinking age directly.
The problem is that the 21st amendment had been treated as
giving the States broad control over regulations of alcoholic
In this case
Petitioner State permitted persons 19 years of age or older to
purchase beer pursuant to S.D. Codified Laws.
However USCS sect. 158 permitted the reduction of federal
highway funds otherwise allocable to a state if the state had a
minimum drinking age below 21.
Petitioner sought a declaratory judgment that sect. 158 violated
Congresss spending power, U.S. Const. art. I, sect. 8, cl. 1,
and that it violated 21 Amendment.
The trial court rejected petitioners claims, and the Court of
Appeals for the 8th Circuit affirmed.
the leading contemporary case construing Congresss power under
the spending clause
[Chief Justice Rehnquist]
Spend power of Congress is not unlimited
The spending power granted to Congress under U.S. Const. art. I,
sect. 8, cl. 1 is of course not unlimited, but is instead
subject to several general restrictions.
General restrictions of Congresss Limitations
The first of these limitations is derived from the language of
the Constitution itself: the exercise of the spending power must
be in pursuit of the general welfare. In considering whether a
particular expenditure is intended to serve general public
purposes, courts should defer substantially to the judgment of
Second, if Congress desires to condition the states' receipt of
federal funds, it must do so unambiguously, enabling the states
to exercise their choice knowingly, cognizant of the
consequences of their participation.
Third, conditions on federal grants might be illegitimate if
they are unrelated to the federal interest in particular
national projects or programs.
Finally, other constitutional provisions may provide an
independent bar to the conditional grant of federal funds
Twenty-one-year old age condition satisfied all requirements
Served the general welfare because different drinking ages in
different states created incentives for young people to combine
their desire to drink with their ability to drive.
Some point pressure turns into coercion
All South Dakota would lose if she adheres to her chosen course
as to a suitable minimum drinking age is 5% of the funds
otherwise obtainable under specified highway grant programs, the
argument as to coercion is shown to be more rhetoric than fact.
Congress offered a relatively mild encouragement to the States
to enact higher minimum drinking ages than they would otherwise
The enactment of such laws remains the prerogative of the
[Justice OConnor] - DISSENT
Minimum Drinking Age is not related to interstate high
The condition placed on the funds it not appropriate for the
The regulation is placed in other areas of the States social
and economic life.
The relation between the regulation and highway funds is
attenuated or tangential relationship to highway use or safety.
Otherwise Congress could regulate everything
If the rule were otherwise, the Congress could effectively
regulate almost any area of a State's social, political, or
economic life on the theory that use of the interstate
transportation system is somehow enhanced.