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Questioning Financial Coercion at the Federal Level

Drew Kaplan ‘20, Associate Opinion Editor

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The United States has one of the highest drinking ages in the world and the highest amongst developed countries. It strikes me as odd that, in a land where I can fight for my country and engage in the democratic process at 18, I must wait an additional three years to legally enjoy a beer.

The Federal Government is in no way empowered to impose a drinking age, and even though the Commerce Clause has oft been abused in this respect, the passage of laws in direct pertinence to a legal drinking age have been left to the states.

However, in the wake of the passage of the 26th amendment, the states, which had until that point in large part maintained a 21 year drinking age, began to loosen their grip. This change was due to two key events. Firstly, president Franklin D. Roosevelt had lowered the draft age to 18 during World War II. Second, the adoption of the 26th amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18.

Suddenly, there was an issue. It was the case that people were able to fight and vote, but not drink. States began to lower their drinking ages. But these changes were not uniform, and the ages ranged from 18 to 21. This created its own issue as those in states with a higher drinking age started driving across state lines to get alcohol, and then driving back.

In 1984, the Reagan administration decided to push a bill through Congress, the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984. Although it did not set a federal drinking age, it did, and does to this day, deny 10% of all federal highway funding to states that do not have a 21 year drinking age. The 10 percent figure was reduced to 8 percent in 2012.

This coercion is mind boggling to me. The power to set a drinking age is a power vested in the states, and the states alone. If a state, county, or municipality wants to set their drinking age to 25, 35, or ban alcohol entirely, they are within their authority to do so. The Federal Government has no such power in this respect.

Loopholes are the devil’s plaything, and the Federal Government has found a truly despicable one. Although they cannot set a federal drinking age, via an act quite literally entitled the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, Congress passed a law of pure coercion. Either bend to the will of Washington, or lose maintenance money for something that we own and put in the states, but something that we force you to maintain, with our aid. The states were largely put into an impossible situation.

Now, the law was challenged in the Supreme Court in 1987, and found to be constitutional; a valid exercise of the Spending Clause of the Constitution. The court found this coercive act to be perfectly constitutional, in large part because it only threatened a portion of federal funds.

While I do disagree with this decision, I find it even more curious that, in 2012, the Supreme Court voted that compelling states to accept the Medicaid expansion, under threat of losing existing Medicaid funding, was unconstitutional, as the law as written threatened the entirety of  federal funds for the program.

What the court has said in these two rulings is that, if the Federal government wants only to coerce that states a little bit, it’s okay. Even if this little bit of coercion could cost the state billions of dollars in Federal funding. It strikes me as odd that this duplicity has been permitted by the highest court in the land. Will there be some cutoff where the percentage of funding triggers a constitutional issue. The National Minimum Drinking Age Act threatened 10 percent at passage. Would 50 percent of highway funding be an acceptable chip to play. All the court has said is that 100 percent is not okay. Is 99 percent an acceptable amount?

Now, most states only restrict the sale of alcohol, but some states, including Pennsylvania, are amongst those which have taken things farther by fully banning the consumption of alcohol by those under 21. While this does raise issues of personal liberty in my mind, I feel that a great issue with the drinking age is its applicability to college campuses.

It strikes me as odd that near half of all college students are considered too immature to drink. We can smoke tobacco, engage in sexual activity, serve in the armed forces, and yet half of Dickinsonians are not legally allowed to purchase or consume alcohol.

This convoluted coercive system surrounding drinking ages in the United States needs to end. I see no problem with the states being free to choose for themselves, but if the Federal government is not empowered to make a decision, I consider it unacceptable for it use severe financial coercion to take a power of the states away from the states.

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The student news site of Dickinson College.
Questioning Financial Coercion at the Federal Level