Vanderbilt Law Review

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In July of 1984 Congress amended the Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982' to require the states either to raise their minimum drinking age to twenty-one or forfeit a percentage of their federal highway grant. This congressional action forced the states to make an extremely difficult decision. The states either could enact a law that their residents might not support or forego the federal highway funds that the states desperately needed to complete important highway improvements. Many states were displeased with both options and challenged the constitutionality of Congress' conditional spending program.

The states' legal challenge has initiated renewed discussion on the limits of Congress' powers to spend and to attach conditions to the receipt of federal funds. These issues have attracted little attention from constitutional scholars. A three volume treatise on constitutional law published in 1986 devoted only fourteen pages to the entire topic. The most recent debate over the spending power concluded sixty-five years ago when the Supreme Court first articulated its analysis of conditions attached to federal grants to the states. The analysis has remained virtually unchanged since that time. Comprised mainly of what the courts have called the"coercion test," the Court's analysis has not been applied to invalidate a single federal grant program in the last fifty years. Congress, however, has dramatically increased its use of conditional spending schemes to accomplish policy objectives. From this in-creased use of conditions on federal grants, a new debate over the extent and nature of those conditions has emerged. The debate reexamines the role of conditions in federal grant programs and focuses on whether the Constitution limits the conditions that Congress may attach to federal grants to the states.'