I had a world history teacher in high school that once told our class that, in his world, the drinking age would be 16 and the driving age would be 21. “Teach them to drink before they can drive,” he said.
It’s an interesting idea, and certainly one the modern-day prohibitionists of Mothers Against Drunk Driving would have a difficult time finding their typical emotional arguments against.
Not that I want to see that happen at all. I’m also not going to argue for the general lowering of the drinking age. What I want to see is our state legislators granted the latitude to evaluate the drinking culture in their states and make laws based on that, without fear of reprisal from the federal government.
A few weeks back, another attempt to lower the drinking age died in a South Dakota committee. South Dakota is just one of many states that has considered allowing those under 21 to buy booze in the past several years. In Wisconsin, Former Rep. Terry Musser, R-Black River Falls, along with other legislators, have introduced legislation in multiple sessions that would lower the drinking age to 19 for those enlisted in military service.
But, as always, free money from Washington prevails.
Let’s give this some perspective, because I don’t think this is common knowledge among University of Wisconsin students. There is actually no federal “requirement” to have a drinking age of 21. The Federal Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 asks that all states set their drinking age at 21. If a state chooses to lower it, or be in any way sneaky about it, the federal government can take away 10 percent of that state’s highway funding.
This essentially amounts to blackmail — do this, and if you don’t, we’re not giving you what we give everybody else. Wisconsin was one of the last states to raise its drinking age, doing so in the late 1980s.
In the 1987 Supreme Court case of South Dakota v. Dole, the court ruled Congress could use highway funds as an incentive to coerce states into raising their drinking ages. The majority believed the two were closely related, since drinking and driving would be reduced by a lower drinking age, making it in the public’s interest.
But in their dissents, Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and William Brennan argued the two aren’t sufficiently related enough for Congress to justify withholding, since most drunken driving arrests don’t come from people between the ages of 18 and 21.
This is the reality of the law. The federal government can regulate whether drinking is legal, but the 10th Amendment forbids it from putting this kind of unfair blackmail on states.
It’s time for a state to take a real stance on this and challenge the government again. Although recent polls from Gallup and ABC News show a majority of Americans do not support lowering the drinking age to 18, I would suspect if you were to ask about lowering it to 19 if people take an alcohol safety course, you would find many more people in favor of that law.
It’s time for a state to pass a law that does something — lower the drinking age to 20 years and 11 months and 28 days, for all I care. But somebody needs to challenge the federal government to cut highway funding, sue the Department of Transportation if they do and get the courts to rethink this federal blackmail.
Thousands of people in Madison, and hundreds of other cities, drink illegally every weekend, even every day. At a certain point, government has to start making laws that respond to the realities of the world and not just the emotional stories of a few drunken driving accidents.
Kevin Bargnes ([email protected]) is a junior majoring in journalism and history.