Federalism and the Constitution

South Dakota v. Dole (1987)

Case background and primary source documents concerning the Supreme Court case of South Dakota v. Dole. Dealing with the whether or not the federal government can attach conditions to money given to states in areas where the federal government has no enumerated power, this lesson asks students to evaluate the extent to which the Court’s interpretation of the General Welfare Clause and attachment of conditions to federal funds given to states is consistent with the principle of federalism.

Founding Principles

Federalism image


The people delegate certain powers to the national government, while the states retain other powers; and the people, who authorize the states and national government, retain all freedoms not delegated to the governing bodies.

Limited Government image

Limited Government

Citizens are best able to pursue happiness when government is confined to those powers which protect their life, liberty, and property.

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.

Key Question

Evaluate the extent to which each of these is consistent with the principle of federalism:

  • The Court’s interpretation of the General Welfare (Spending) Clause
  • The attachment of conditions to federal funds given to states


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.

Learning Objectives

  • Students understand the major events related to the national Minimum Legal Drinking Age Act (MLDA 1984).
  • Students understand and apply constitutional principles at issue in South Dakota v. Dole, to evaluate the Supreme Court’s ruling in that case.


  1. Set the stage for analysis of South Dakota v. Dole. Consulting Article 1, Sections 8-10 of the Constitution – the enumeration of powers given to the national government, and limitations to both national and state powers – have students brainstorm a list of the range of powers that the 10th Amendment would seem to “reserve” to the states.
  2. Assign appropriate documents for student analysis.
  3. Use key question for class discussion or writing assignment, focusing on the constitutional principles involved in the case.
    Key Question: Evaluate the extent to which each of these is consistent with the principle of federalism:

    • The Court’s interpretation of the General Welfare (Spending) Clause
    • The attachment of conditions to federal funds given to states
  4. Discuss Question 2 of Document H: South Dakota v. Dole, Dissenting Opinion, regarding the differences between a condition and a regulation. How is this distinction related to the principle of federalism?
  5. Refer to student responses to Question 2 in Document A, the Taxing and Spending Clause of the U.S. Constitution—a definition of “general welfare”.
    • How did the Supreme Court majority define “general welfare” in South Dakota v. Dole?
    • How did the dissenting opinion define “general welfare”?
    • Compare/contrast students’ definitions with those of the Court.

See RESOURCES for additional Graphic Organizers.


  1. United States Constitution, Article I, Section 8, Clause 1 (1787)
  2. Brutus #6 (1787)
  3. Federalist #41 by James Madison (1788)
  4. Federalist #45 by James Madison (1788)
  5. The Tenth Amendment (1791)
  6. United States v. Butler (1936), Majority Opinion
  7. South Dakota v. Dole (1987), Majority Opinion
  8. South Dakota v. Dole (1987), Dissenting Opinion
  9. Table: State Minimum Legal Drinking Age—National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (1991)

Background Information

Documents A–E: United States Constitution and Federalist/Anti-Federalist Papers
The Philadelphia Convention was called, in large part, to deal with the commercial challenges posed by thirteen sovereign states charging each other tariffs, refusing to recognize each others’ currencies, and questioning each others’ systems of weights and measures. The Constitution that emerged on September 17, 1787 created a strong central government (today often called the “federal government”) with limited powers. In the state-by-state ratification conventions that followed, debates immediately centered on just how powerful that central government would be, and what powers were reserved to the states. Anti-Federalists such as Brutus (Document B) argued that the central government created by the Constitution would be powerful enough to endanger the liberties of the people and the authority of the states. Federalists (Documents C and D) maintained that, since the government consisted of enumerated powers, employing a complex system of checks and balances, and always under the control of the people themselves, there should be no concern about individual liberty or the authority of the states. One result of debate during the ratification process was that James Madison agreed to head the task of writing a Bill of Rights to be added to the Constitution. The Tenth Amendment (Document E) clarified the division of power between central government and states.

Document F: United States v. Butler (1936), Majority Opinion (6-3)
During the long financial collapse that began in 1929, many people maintained that the central government needed more power in order to manage the economy and restore the nation to economic health. The 1933 Agricultural Adjustment Act included a provision by which money collected from agricultural processers would be redistributed to farmers who agreed to leave some of their land unplanted. The goal was to reduce production, drive prices up, and increase the amount of money that farmers could receive for their products. The majority opinion, written by Justice Owen Roberts, ruled that the processing tax/redistribution aspect of the law was unconstitutional because it overstepped the powers delegated to the federal government and indirectly forced compliance.

Document G: South Dakota v. Dole (1987), Majority Opinion (7-2)
The national Minimum Legal Drinking Age Act (MLDA ) of 1984 was an effort to deal with the problem of drinking and driving by young people. Varying drinking ages among the states sometimes resulted in drivers crossing state lines to buy alcohol. MLDA provided for the Secretary of Transportation to withhold 5% of the federal highway funding from any state that did not maintain a minimum drinking age of 21. The majority opinion, written by Chief Justice Rehnquist, held that the withholding of 5% of a state’s federal highway funding was not coercive, and the law was a constitutional use of the federal government’s taxing and spending power. States could still choose to forfeit some of their federal highway funds and set a lower drinking age.

Document H: South Dakota v. Dole (1987), Dissenting Opinion
Justice O’Connor argued in dissent that Congress was using its taxing and spending power to regulate a decision that belonged to the states — the legal drinking age. Her view was that there was simply not enough connection between regulation of drinking age and construction of highways to justify this law.

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