Skip to Main Content

South Dakota v. Dole – Case Background



Read the Case Background and Key Question. Then analyze the Documents provided. Finally, answer the Key Question in a well-organized essay that incorporates your interpretations of the Documents as well as your own knowledge of history.


Federalism Limited government

Case Background

Since the Founding, debate has persisted about the Constitution’s precise division of powers in maintaining America’s system of federalism. Some Anti-Federalists were concerned that the
Constitution’s more general clauses might be used by a future Congress to expand federal power into areas that were properly the domain of the states. One of these was the General Welfare (Spending) Clause in Article 1, Section 8, Clause 1: “The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States.”

The New Deal marked a turning point as the Congress began to use the Spending Clause on a far grander scale in its response to the Great Depression. In 1933, Congress attempted to manage the
nation’s agricultural market by levying a tax on the processors of farm products. The money taken from these processors was to be used to pay federal subsidies to individual farmers who agreed not to farm some of their land. While the Supreme Court struck down this New Deal program in U.S. v. Butler as unconstitutional saying that regulation of agriculture was beyond the scope of federal authority, it nevertheless adopted a very broad interpretation of the General Welfare Clause, leaving the door open for future Congresses to use the spending power as a way to influence state action.

In 1984 Congress walked through that door with the passage of the national Minimum Legal Drinking Age Act (MLDA 1984). Congress had provided funding to the states for interstate highways since 1916. But in 1984, the MLDA placed a new condition on the receipt of those funds. Under the MLDA, any state that refused to raise its drinking age to 21 would see its funds decreased by 5%.

Does Congress have the power to make rules about drinking age? The Constitution is silent on this power, and so many would say that it remains with the states under our system of federalism. However, by attaching the drinking-age condition, Congress sought to influence state decision-making via its spending power. Congress asserted that drinking ages affected highway safety, and highway safety was part of the ‘general welfare.’ In South Dakota v. Dole (1988), the Court was asked to address whether Congress could attach conditions to money given to states if those conditions were in an area where the federal government has no enumerated power to act.