Cheers to St. Patrick

With thoughts of green beer flowing, the Uniform Drinking Age Act of 1984 sprung to mind and how the drinking age was set in the United States. A report by the General Accounting Office in 1986 reviewed the law that went into effect in 1984 that prohibited a small percentage (now 8%) of federal-aid highway funding be withheld from states that did not have a legal drinking age of 21. By 1995 all 50 states had made the legal drinking age 21. This law was an example of how the federal government can entice, but not place an undue burden on states to create uniform laws or regulations.

There are plenty of articles and reasons for why the law was put in place, and how effective it is at achieving the stated goal. However, for legal commentary the 1984 law is a good example of a federal law being applied by the states, instead of federal government, and how it is done. When the federal government cannot enact a law, such a state’s legal drinking age what is done instead is that the federal agency responsible can create an incentive for states to adopt and enforce the law. The key component is that the incentive cannot be an undue burden if the state does not adopt and enforce the law. In 1984 the incentive was that 10% of federal funding for highway construction and maintenance would be withheld, which could be a considerable amount (potentially millions) in the scheme of how much funding is given 10% would be hard to justify as an undue burden. Around 2012 the percentage was lowered to 8%, which is even less of a burden if a state doesn’t adopt and enforce the law.

To a lawyer this is a great example of how the federal government gets states to adopt and enforce laws.


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