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The Constitution enumerates the powers of the federal government and reserves all others to the states and the people. Thus, when Congress wants to promote a policy not within its enumerated powers, it sometimes relies on its ability to persuade states to legislate that policy.
The limits of Congress’s power to promote policy through one such means—conditional spending—were put to the test in South Dakota v. Dole, 483 U.S. 203 (1987). In 1984, Congress had passed a law to withhold a portion of federal highways funds from any state that refused to raise its minimum drinking age to 21.
At the time, South Dakota law permitted people to buy some types of alcohol at age 19. South Dakota sued Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Dole and the United States government.
South Dakota argued that the law was unconstitutional, because Congress had exceeded its authority under the Spending Clause. Additionally, the state argued that the law violated the Twenty-First Amendment.
The United States Supreme Court took up the case to determine whether Congress could constitutionally condition states’ receipt of federal funds on their compliance with a federal policy that Congress did not have the power to enact directly. In that landmark decision, the Court held that Congress could use conditional spending to promote policy, provided Congress does not use unduly coercive means.