The Baltimore Sun reports today that Vermont is considering lowering the legal drinking age in the state. This is a good idea. A better idea would be to eliminate drinking age requirements entirely, but I am a firm believer that we usually ought not let the perfect stand in the way of the good, so I would gladly support such a measure.
Of course, since it’s been brought up, it seems worth it to ask how we got in the present situation, with uniform nationwide drinking age laws, in the first place. The Constitution does not grant the federal government the authority to legislate on such matters. We once recognized this which is why the original proponents of nationwide alcohol restrictions had to pass an amendment to see their plans implemented. Of course, we all know how poorly prohibition turned out then, and that the amendment was itself amended and revoked in short order. So what happened next? Well, in 1984 congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act which extorted state compliance with the threat of withholding federal transportation funds. Somehow the Supreme Court found that the legislature could require indirectly what they once could not demand explicitly. It truly boggles the mind.
My favorite quote from the Sun piece came from John McCardell, the former college president leading the movement to lower the drinking age, “If Congress would grant a waiver, the states would be willing to try something, and at least then we could get some evidence and see whether things are better or worse.” What a sad commentary on our present condition that states must petition the federal government for permission to participate in federalism.