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Lowering the Minimum Drinking Age

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Lowering the Minimum Drinking Age

The National Minimum Drinking Age Act is perhaps the law that has the most impact on the day-to-day lives of America's youth since it was signed into law on July 17, 1984. While the 21-year-old drinking age seems imbedded in American society, it is only a recent innovation. Most people do not know that the drinking age was only made a national law in 1984, and only after a determined battle by special interest groups. This bill concerned many notable politicians and lobbyists, fighting for it and against it; they left their impact on the future of our nation. These eminent people have gone down in history for the effect they have had on this piece of legislation. Both houses and several committees exerted their influence on this and helped it on its way.

The history of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act truly started back before Prohibition. The temperance movement used selective prohibition (drinking ages) as a stepping stone approach to their goal of outlawing all alcohol. Finally they did achieve the goal of total Prohibition of alcohol, and in 1919 the 18th amendment to the constitution was ratified. Although due to the seeming ineffectualness of Prohibition and the change in public opinion, the 18th amendment was in 1933 repealed by the 21st amendment. What followed was a compromise with the lingering temperance movement and the modern drinking age was established. "The political failure of general Prohibition meant that American adults would increasingly focus justifications for alcohol policy less on the perils of drunkenness and more on the tenuous concept that adults can drink properly but youths cannot or should not." (Males 190)

From the end of Prohibition until 1984 drinking ages were determined by the states, many of them had the age at 21 while several lowered the age to 18 for the purchase of beer. This was changed due to the baby boom generation and the Vietnam War. "From 1970 through 1975 nearly all states lowered their legal ages of adulthood, thirty including their legal drinking ages, usually from 21 to 18." (Males 194) It was argued that if people were required to fight and die in a foreign war then they should be allowed the privileged of drinking alcohol. This generation exercised previously unheard of clout and political muscle, and through years of protest and many valid arguments this generation of youth gained back some lost liberty. After this period, however, public sentiment changed. The baby boomers were aging and the freedoms they for which they fought for themselves no longer seemed important when they involved someone else.

This loss of a powerful ally allowed the modern prohibitionist movement led by Candy Lightner, the president and founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), to gain strength in this country again. The late seventies and late eighties were marked with an excess of highly publicized studies that claimed teenage alcohol was out of control and was turning into a devastating problem of epidemic proportion. This and the national mood produced an environment primed for the anti-youth, anti-alcohol legislation that became the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984.

The actual bill required "all States to raise their minimum drinking age to 21 within 2 years or lose a portion of their Federal-aid highway funds; and encourage States, through incentive grants programs, to pass mandatory sentencing laws to combat drunk driving." (Thomas Senate Record Vote Analysis) The portion of the Federal-aid highway funds that would be lost if the state didn't comply amounted to 5 percent in the third year and 10 percent in the fourth year. This bill was created and acted upon by many dynamic people. Certainly the person who had the most impact upon this legislation was Candy Lightner who founded the organization, MADD, after a drunk driver killed her daughter in 1980. After that traumatic event Lightner turned her grief into revenge and founded the powerful lobbying organization that claimed a membership of three-hundred thousand in 44 states by 1984. Also a highly visible person was the president of the United States, Ronald Reagan. Initially Reagan had threatened to veto the bill, citing that the provisions that punished states that didn't comply was and infringement upon states rights. Reagan later changed from opposition to support, formally announcing this on June 13, 1984.

Many congressmen were involved in the long process that created this piece of legislation. First of all Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, D-N.J. was the senator who proposed the senate amendment to house bill H.R. 4616. This amendment was the "first piece of legislation he has successfully sponsored since his election in 1982." (Gettinger 1984) Sen. Gordon J. Humphrey, R-N.H. proposed an opposing amendment to Lautenberg's; one that

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