- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 21, 2000

No one, of course, is "for" drunk driving but that's hardly the point. To attempt to oppose even ludicrous and excessive prohibitionism is to subject oneself to accusations of "coddling" drunk drivers or "being in the pocket of the liquor industry." So don't expect much of a fight over the federal government's attempts to strong-arm Virginia, Maryland and other states into adopting legislation which neither state wants and which represent an unwarranted intrusion by Washington upon the legislative prerogative of theoretically sovereign states.

At issue are two measures that were included in the massive 1998 federal highway and transit bill having to do with open alcoholic beverage containers in motor vehicles, and mandatory punishments (automatic one-year license suspension, impoundment of the individual's vehicle) for repeat DWI offenders. More precisely, the issue is not the measures themselves but rather, whether the federal government has any business dictating legislative policy to each of the 50 states.

Virginia and Maryland lawmakers have rightly objected to the federal government's bullying but the threatened loss of millions in federal highway dollars will probably turn the table in Washington's favor, eventually. Maryland stands to lose $7.9 million while Virginia is facing a shortfall of $6.8 million. In both cases, the monies are to be denied simply because each state has failed to pass a law exactly similar to the two demanded by Washington. Virginia did pass a repeat DWI offender law, but has not dealt with the issue of open alcoholic beverages.

What the feds demand is objectionable on several counts, not the least of which is that it potentially criminalizes innocent behavior such as transporting a half-empty bottle of wine home from a dinner party. A motorist could be charged with an "alcohol-related" offense while operating a motor vehicle, even though sober as a Methodist preacher and having done nothing more sinister than have that bottle in the back seat. Maryland has not adopted either measure demanded by the mighty law lords inside the Beltway. Thirteen other states, however, have knuckled under to Uncle Sam.

Virginia state Delegate William J. Howell, Stafford Republican, resents the federal arm-twisting. "We're doing a very good job, thank you, of addressing the problem of drunk driving," he said. "If ever there's an unwarranted intrusion of the federal government onto the states, this is it." The same sentiments were echoed by Maryland Democratic Del. Joseph F. Vallario, who said that his state "won't be pushed into" passing the laws demanded by Washington but will pursue and enact those that are deemed appropriate for Maryland.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving an organization that has become so strident and extreme in pursuing a prohibitionist agenda that its founder, Candy Lightner, has disassociated herself from it predicted that eventually the states would give in to the pressure. "State legislatures are flush with money and have the ability to say no to big sums of money, but the money is going to add up and eventually they're going to do it," said David Kelly of the Northern Virginia chapter of MADD. In MADD's view, state lawmakers are the lackeys of the beverage industry, and the slightest reluctance to pass any law advocated by MADD is, ipso facto, evidence of being "soft" on drunk drivers.

All of this is nonsense, of course. State lawmakers are perfectly capable of passing appropriate laws, relating to drunk driving or otherwise as Mr. Howell rightly observed. They do not need the firm guidance of Great Father in Washington to do the right thing. If not and Washington is going to dictate the legislative agenda to states maybe we should dispense with the window dressing of state sovereignty and federalism and wait, hat in hand, for our all-wise and all-powerful leaders to inform us of their wishes.

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