An Analysis of the 1984 National Minimum Drinking Age Act

In 1984 the Drinking Age Act was passed as a means of targeting problems caused by the drinking habits of young adults, which had received increased attention in the media from the mid-1970s onwards. Because the drinking age differed from state-to-state, there had been issues with youths crossing state borders to drink, and a rise in the number of drink-driving accidents. The Bill sought to counter these issues by setting the national legal drinking age at 21, thus raising it from 18 in many states. However, this was only one of several solutions that had been proposed at the time which may have solved the problem with as much success as the Act. By analyzing key events leading up to the passage of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984, we can better understand why the Act emerged as the official policy, and gain key insights into how the legislative policy-making process worked. In order to do this, one must explore how the Bill found its way onto the decision-making agenda in the first place, and examine how bureaucracies in general and the police force in particular influenced the passage of the Bill.  It is also important to investigate how the courts and the judicial system influenced the formation of the 1984 legislation.

The Decision-Making Agenda

“The key to understanding policy change is not where the idea came from but what made it take hold and grow,”[1]Kingdon argues in his book “Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies”. He suggests that policy making is not a rational process in which key decision makers encounter problems and then try to find solutions to them. Instead he argues that “the key to understanding agenda and policy change is [the] coupling”[2] of problem, political and policy streams which all exist independently of each other.[3] The problem stream is made up of all the possible conditions that could be perceived as problems , the political stream is constituted by changes in government and the public mood and policy stream constitutes the different alternative solutions to a a particular problem noted in the problem stream.  The convergence of these three factors creates “an opportunity for pushing one’s proposal’s ‘policy window’ – … a short time, when the conditions to push a given subject higher on the policy agenda are right.”[4] Events leading up to the passage of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act on July 17th 1984, created such a policy window.

As President Reagan signed the 1984 bill into law he commented ” It’s a grave national problem, and it touches all our lives,” and added, ”with the problem so clear-cut and the proven solution at hand, we have no misgiving about this judicious use of Federal power.”[5] Only four years earlier, the president not only opposed these policies, but the issue of teenage drunk driving was not even on the decision agenda. In four years time, as indicated by the president’s comment, this had all changed.

The problem of the drinking age and drunk driving had been an issue in America for quite some time. “Many states, including Connecticut, lowered the drinking age to 18 from 21 during the 1960’s. A frequently heard argument was that if young people were old enough to join the armed forces or be drafted, they were old enough to drink… [there was] a frequently cited problem in Fairfield County, with young people from Connecticut, where the drinking age was 21, driving to New York, where they could drink at 18.”[6] Connecticut was not the only state that suffered from this problem and several states actually lowered their drinking age to escape the issues surrounding drunk teenagers driving across state borders[7]. The statistics also made it clear that young people in general and teenagers in particular, fell victim to more fatal car accidents than the wider population. The Christian Science Monitor, like other major publications, publicized alarming reports about how ”Younger drivers – those between 16 and 24 – accounted for about 42 percent of the road fatalities in 1982, and the largest number [were] under 21,”[8] and “the rate of liquor-related fatalities among drivers aged 16 to 19 is three times that of motorists in the 25- to 44-year-old range.”[9]

As these figures make clear, the question of teenage drunk driving was not a new problem when it surfaced in the public arena of the early 1980’s.  The drinking age in many states had been 18 for over 20 years by the time the law changed in 1984 – as many sought to reduce these problems, by keeping teenagers off the road and less tempted to drive drunk to and from neighboring states. Ironically, the lowering of the drinking age 20 years before was seen as the cause of many of the problems surrounding the 18-21 year old drinker.  In fact, there had been people unhappy with the lower drinking age for quite some time before the 1984 legislation.  It is clear then that there would have been significant support for raising the drinking by 1984, yet it is still uncertain as to why these sentiments remained latent throughout the 1970s, and why they appeared in the mid-1980s but neither in preceding nor subsequent years. It is also worth noting that simply because a section of society is discontented with a given policy (in this case the drinking age laws) does not mean that the government will immediately address the issue through legislation. Usually there are other factors that actually spark this change. Hence, there must have been special circumstances in 1984 that created a fertile environment for the 1984 Drinking Act to come to fruition that allowed the problem, political and policy streams to converge so decisively.

Indeed, Kingdon’s theory relating to the problem stream suggests that ‘problems’ can remain unattended to indefinitely, because “there is a difference between a condition and a problem … Conditions become defined as problems when we come to believe that we should do something about them.”[10] Consequently, until there is a change in the problem stream whereby a condition is perceived as a problem that forces the government into action can “the problem stream [can] push some items higher on the agenda.”[11] Prior to the early 1980’s, the question of a higher national drinking age had not been perceived as a problem, but merely a condition. It was in this period that a series of events changed the perception of drinking age and drunk driving from merely a condition to a real issue that the government had to address. The question we now need to explore is what those key events and people were that moved the issue of a new national drinking age onto the decision-making agenda.

In the eyes of the press, the changes that drove the issue into the limelight could be pinned to one particular woman and organization.  Most major newspapers asserted that “the drinking age legislation can be primarily attributed to the efforts of Candy Lightner and the MADD [Mothers Against Drunk Driving] organization.”[12] According to the press’s exaggerated reporting of the situation, her organization was able to create a change in the problem stream and consequently re-define the issue from a condition to a pressing problem. Indeed, The New York Times described her involvement dramatically, stating that the federal minimum drinking age debate “had hardly raised a murmur … before Mrs. Lightner arrived.”[13]

However, according to Kingdon, this phenomena is not out of the ordinary as “one can nearly always pinpoint a particular person, or at most a few persons, who were central in moving a subject up on the agenda and into positions for enactment.”[14] This person, or these people, are what Kingdon calls policy entrepreneurs. Policy entrepreneurs, like Candy Lightner, are “advocates who are willing to invest their resources – time, energy, reputation, money – to promote a position in return for anticipated future gain.”[15] Kingdon argues that, policy entrepreneurs are fundamental to the policy process since “they hook solutions to problems, proposals to political momentum, and political events to policy problems … Without the presence of an entrepreneur, the linking of the streams may not take place.”[16]The case of the minimum drinking age act of 1984, certainly illustrates this point and is a perfect example of theory being reflected by political reality. In Kingdon’s terms, the policy entrepreneurs, Candy Lightner and her MADD, were able to open a policy window by ’emphasizing’ a “problem [that] capture[d] the attention of government officials.”[17]

Although the efforts of Candy Lightner, who created MADD in the early 1980’s after her 13 year old daughter was killed by a drunk driver,[18] were undeniably extremely important in bringing the issue onto the decision-making agenda, it was not the only significant factor at play. As mentioned, there had been dissatisfaction with the lowering of the drinking age since its introduction in the 1960’s, that led to in serious changes before Lightner was involved in the debate. The New York Times reported that “of 20 states that lowered the drinking age in the early 1970’s, all but five have raised it since 1976.”[19] This suggests that while a national initiative for raising the drinking had not reached the decision making agenda prior to Mrs. Lightners campaign, it was already on the policy agenda and had already impacted the decision-making agenda in several states. The issue of increasing the minimum drinking age had already surfaced before MADD’s formation, indicating that Lightner’s role had been somewhat exaggerated by the media.

This theory gains more credibility when one considers that “the late Seventies and early Eighties were marked with an excess of highly publicized studies that claimed teenage alcohol use was out of control and was turning into a devastating problem of epidemic proportions.”[20] In fact there were numerous statistics published in New York two years prior to the passage of the bill  which noted that “the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, in a study of 28,200 traffic deaths in 1978 released in September, found that teen-age drivers held 8 percent of the nation’s licenses but caused 22 percent of the fatal crashes.”[21] Even in 1984, The New York Times claimed that in “1972, when the minimum drinking age was 21 in New Jersey, there were 57 fatalities related to the consumption of alcohol among people 18 to 20 years old in the seven counties. During the next seven years, when the drinking age was lowered to 18, there were 173 such fatalities in the same age group in the same counties.”[22] The increased reporting of such figures was coupled with stories of “spectacular accidents [which] created more media coverage” which piled pressure on legislators to act.[23]

Nonetheless, it is important not to underestimate the role of Lightener and MADD had in pushing the Drinking Act onto the policy agenda.  Even though there were other projects which sought to establish a higher drinking age had taken hold in several states by the time MADD started their national campaign, it is still undeniable, that it was in a large part Lightner, who, in King’s terms enabled the coupling of the streams on a national level. It was she (and MADD) that hooked the solution to the problem to proposals and political momentum and political events to policy problems. She tapped into previously existing sentiment to her advantage in order to create the necessary policy window that would eventually forced the issue onto the decision-making agenda of Congress.

The fact that her “tiny group began knocking on doors in the California capital, trying to give meaning to a senseless death” became by June 1984 “a national movement with 258 chapters, 300,000 supporters and a host of spinoff groups overwhelming decades of public apathy and congressional inertia,”[24] illustrates just how important her efforts were. After the formation of MADD, the movement gained incredible momentum and kindred organizations were born. Lightner herself recalled in the Washington Post: “every time we went to a high school we would find a newly organized SADD Students Against Driving Drunk group.”[25] As more people joined Mrs. Lightner cause, “the roads and highways created a growing constituency, as the families and friends of drunken driving victims looked for some way to express their grief. Spectacular accidents created more media coverage which, in turn, put pressure on legislators.”[26] Lightner was able to capture the support of Sen. Richard G. Lugar… a board member of the American Institute for Public Service, after meeting him in 1983,  “he was startled by her story and the fervor of her cause, and decided to see if the time had come for federal legislation.”[27]By that point Lightner and MADD had already secured the support of “Rep. James J. Florio [and convinced him to] submit a bill encouraging a state minimum age of 21 for consumption of alcoholic beverages… [and] Rep. James J. Howard (D-N.J.), chairman of the Public Works and Transportation Committee, soon joined the campaign.”[28] Although the change in the problem stream can be traced to a number of sources, it was really Lightner’s efforts that gave the issue the momentum it needed to overcome the inertia required to transform the issue from a condition on some peoples’ minds into an urgent problem on the national consciousness.

While MADD’s ability to garnish support on Capitol Hill was key to moving the issue onto the decision-making agenda was important, it was their ability to focus the attention of the media on the issue, which ultimately ensured the support of the general public and was key in the passage of the bill. In fact, “a January 1983 Gallup poll showed that 77 percent of those citizens interviewed favored setting the minimum age at 21. That same survey found that of those within the age group affected, 58 percent supported the increase.”[29]

Key decision makers who originally opposed the Bill were persuaded to support it under the pressure of public opinion and out of fear of the possibility of not being re-elected due to their opposition. Just how important public opinion was is perhaps best illustrated by President Reagan’s political volte-face. Mr. Regan “who once had reservations about a measure that, in effect, seeks to force states to change their policies”[30],  “dropp[ed] his opposition to the measure”.  “The President had said he was persuaded by the evidence that raising the drinking age could save lives. In addition, some of Mr. Reagan’s re-election strategists [had] made no secret of their hope that the issue [would] help the President’s standing among voters.”[31] Reagan ignored his Party’s policy in this matter.  Indeed, “the bill was being blocked in the Senate by Republicans [Reagan’s own party] who wanted to leave the issue to the states,”[32] which illustrated just how far from the party line this bill was. The fact that Reagan urged the passage of the bill saying ”forgive me, but those who are holding this up in the House are out of touch with reality, and they’re out of touch with the American people,”[33] highlights how important public opinion was in turning Reagan and the Republican Party’s opposition into support and ultimately lead to the its passage. The U.S. president, arguably the most powerful man alive, surrendered to what he called “a grave national problem” which demonstrates just how strong this national movement (inflamed by Candy Lightner), actually was.

The necessary policy window could neither have been opened by MADD nor would it have led to the eventual passage of the Bill if it had not been for pre-existing, latent support that helped create so compelling a movement that people and politicians alike found themselves swept up by their momentum.  Such pressure caused Reagan to state that ”with the problem so clear-cut and the proven solution at hand, we have no misgiving about this judicious use of Federal power.”[34] This statement makes clear MADD’s success in framing the argument about the need to address the danger posed by under 21’s drinking and driving across state borders.  It was the problem as defined by the MADD movement and their favored solution that took hold, and it was their campaign that ultimately created a coupling of the problem and policy streams with the politics stream, creating a policy window that enabled legislators to pass the bill

The solutions to underage drinking are as numerous as the problems it creates such as health-related issues, disorderly conduct, etc. Although some less influential groups (such as student groups and liquor dealer interest groups) advocated other options, throughout the anti-drinking movement, there was always an emphasis on a particular solution to the problem (i.e., raising the drinking age), which can be traced to Lightner and her supporters.  The distinct lack of policy alternatives might be explained by the concept of what Baumgartner and Jones called a policy monopoly.  While there was some opposition to MADD’s proposed changes, few other alternative solutions were put forth in the media other than those promoted by MADD which militated against the opposition’s success.  In fact, events might have turned out very differently if another policy solution had gained momentum.  For example, there could have been a drive to improve public transportation to decrease the number of people driving drunk by providing a realistic alternative, or another minimum age could have been picked such as twenty or twenty-two.

Today, the 1984 decision still stands, even though there is some pressure to change the law. In The Amethyst Initiative, one hundred college presidents voiced their support for a change to the drinking age.  Nonetheless, no other interest group has been able to mobilize massive support for a new solution which supports Baumgartner and Jones’ idea of a policy monopoly.  There has been no resurrection of a galvanizing movement like that started by Lightner’s  MADD (with its poignant and emphatic sense of crisis and urgency), to compel legislators to re-address drinking policies.It was MADD’s ability to couple the political and problem streams that lies at the heart of the success and longevity of the 1984 Act.  Although the policy that eventually won passage in 1984 was the solution advocated by MADD, there were a great number of other influential groups that favored the same outcome which contributed significantly to the bill’s successful passage. Once MADD had pushed the issue onto the decision-making agenda, they needed aid from others to ensure its passage. Nonetheless, the opening of the policy window, by MADD was key to enabling other groups, driven by their own agendas and motives, to lend their support to the solution to the problem defined and articulated by Lightner.  For example, the Police force, as a bureaucratic state institution, played a key role in helping the bill successfully navigate the legislative labyrinth required for passage of the Act.  It is important to understand how and why the police were so instrumental in the processes surrounding the Bill’s passage.

The role of bureaucracies in the formation and passage of the drinking age bill

As the drug of choice among children and adolescents, underage drinking presents both public health and public safety issues. In Congressional hearings on what became the National Drinking Age Act of 1984, the majority of witnesses agreed that both underage drinking and drunk driving were serious problems that needed to be addressed through national legislation. Although there was near unanimous agreement that there had to be a national drinking age, there was disagreement on what that minimum age for the purchase and public possession of alcohol should be. Different state governments defined the legal drinking age differently, ranging from a low of eighteen to a high of twenty-one years of age. In its quest for uniformity, the federal government could have lowered, rather than raised the drinking age – and this was still on the table when Lightner was campaigning. The key issue revolved around whether the legislation should only address drunk driving by youngsters or whether the legislation should also be used to protect young people from the devastating effects of alcohol in general. The legislature turned to the police and other relevant groups for advice.

Candy Lightener, had already stated clearly that raising the drinking age to 21 and enforcing it on a national basis, should be an essential part of preventing accidents by young, drunk drivers. She argued that “only a national drinking age of 21 [would] solve this problem.” The way in which different interest groups responded to Lightener’s opinions, provides excellent insight into how and why certain bureaucratic organizations endorse or reject important policy decisions. The New Jersey State Police, represented by Captain Anthony Blanda, the assistant operations officer, argued convincingly at the House hearing that the uniformity aspect of the bill was important and clearly expressed the Police’s support for the bill (“totally support”[35]). More significantly, he stressed that in terms of saving lives, raising the drinking age to 21 was the most important factor in saving lives (as opposed to simple age uniformity between states). After presenting several compelling studies and statistical findings that illustrated how raising the drinking age in New Jersey clearly lowered the number of young people involved in fatal car accidents as a result of drunk driving, Captain Blanda claimed that “this clearly indicates that there were more youths killed when the drinking age was 18 as opposed to 21. Crossing the border was not as significant a problem as age itself.”[36]

While the stance of the Police was shared by many other participants in the hearing and the measure was ultimately passed, this opinion was by no means universal and varied according to interest group. The New York Undergraduate Student group argued that uniformity was essential in order to prevent drunk driving across borders, but disagreed with implementing twenty-one as the necessary, uniform drinking age. While conceding that drunk driving was a serious issue, The Wine and Spirit Retailers of New Jersey, Inc. suggested that raising the drinking age to twenty-one was inappropriate. Their opposition was doubtlessly in the financial interests of their members, who were stringently opposed to the heavy fines retailers would face, should they (even accidentally) sell alcoholic beverages to anyone under twenty-one. In their defense, they pointed to the difficulty of fake IDs and determining a person’s real age.

Why then was the Police’s stance favored over that of the other groups? One possible explanation for the failure of the student and Wine and Spirit interest groups to garner support for their positions might have been that they were dismissed as being fueled by self interest. Indeed it would be easy to dismiss the opposition of these two groups as biased and rooted in self-interest prompted, on one hand by the students’ defense of college parties and on the other, by the financial interests of alcohol merchants. Even if this were true, it is neither surprising nor should it necessarily be viewed negatively. After all, the role of an interest group is to further the interests of its members. Furthermore, their behavior becomes more reasonable when one considers that groups representing the police and other public bureaucracies also had ulterior motives in their stance on drink-driving.  As Terry M. Moe alludes, one could suggest that the Police’s endorsement of the bill was at least partly fuelled by self-interest. Public bureaucracies have a special relationship to the process of policy making, as they can, in contrast to private interest groups, be directly affected by outcomes which result from the implementation of those policies.  Since they are the primary enforcers of laws, Police are more directly affected by policy outcomes regarding legal matters than other bureaucracies. Often this motivates them to attempt to mould any such changes so that they will benefit them.   In the current case, for example, creating additional laws to be enforced would increase the community’s need for policing services and thereby increase the demands of the Police for bigger budgets.

In elaboration, it is useful to turn to Terry M. Moe’s studies which focus on the influence of teachers’ unions on educational policy and the key principles which can be applied to public sector bureaucracies in general. Moe argues that public sector interest groups, like any interest group, want to improve conditions for their members. This usually entails protecting their jobs and raising their pay. To illustrate this, he asks the reader to; “Consider business firms, for example. Economists have done an excellent job of understanding these organizations by recognizing that profit is the fundamental interest that drives their behavior … Teachers unions can be understood in much the same way, except they are not driven by profits. Their survival and well-being depend on their ability to attract members and resources, and these define their fundamental interests.”[37] The police, much like the teacher’s union, want to protect their kind by protecting their jobs. The New Jersey State Police‘s endorsement of the uniform drinking age highlights this notion. Much like decreasing classroom size in schools increases the demand for teachers (and is therefore desirable to the teacher’s union), raising the drinking age increases the demand for the police services. Since increasing the drinking age to twenty-one (the policy solution advocated by the Police) would criminalize an entirely new segment of society, the issue extends beyond that of drunk-driving itself. Police officers would likely monitor underage drivers who might partake of alcohol even though they have no intention of driving. Indeed, we can see the effects of the Act today. Police are on constant patrol across college campuses throughout the nation, raid fraternity parties and monitor student drinking. Similar to the way in which longer jail sentences advocated by prison guard unions increase the demand for their services, so too does a twenty-one year old drinking age increase the need for police services which advances the interest, role and need of the police.

The motives of the police may be more difficult to discern as the issues involved are more subtle, less-discussed and obscured by statistical evidence they provided when discussing the drinking age. Conversely, the student group and retailers’ association were much more obvious in the motivations, clearly partial and countered by facts and figures which made their arguments less persuasive to ‘impartial’ observers.  Indeed, it would be hard to convincingly argue that the stance of the police was totally impartial, un-biased or unaffected by ulterior motives that lay in the interest of the police, e.g., increased budgets; increased authority etc., since creating additional laws increases the need for policing services and the need for larger budgets.

This is not to say that the New Jersey State Police’s intentions and motivations were not genuine expressions of concern for the many victims of young people driving while drunk. We must, however, bear in mind that their endorsement of the bill will have been influenced by issues other than their instinct for self-preservation and promotion of their services.  While their position is not in and of itself damming, the self-interests involved meant that they were unlikely, or at least less likely, to point out the negative aspects of raising the drinking age – which I will touch upon below.  In their testimony, the New Jersey Police failed to account for some of the other problems that a higher drinking age could create.  Forcing underage drinking underground not only stigmatizes the act itself but discourages those involved from seeking medical and/or psychological counseling and has the unintended consequence of creating (or at least promoting ) additional and more serious problems. Stanford University’s open-door policy recognizes this problem and places the health and well-being of its students above that of tackling underage drinking per se.

Public bureaucracies play a special role in the policy formation process and can often be more influential than other groups because of their unique relationship with the government. Although the Police’s endorsement of the bill was not the only deciding factor in its successful passage, their endorsement was nevertheless crucial. Public bureaucracies often have a special influence over policy formation because of the credibility their backing lends.  The public, which is responsible for the problem stream, and the government which is responsible for the political stream tends to treat the arguments of the police with more weight than that of other groups because of their unique status as a public bureaucracy/servant.  To the public they are a credible source of statistics on alcohol-related crime because they were directly responsible for dealing with it on an every day basis. From the government’s point of view, the police are effectively their employees who would be responsible for enforcement making policy makers obliged to take their advice seriously.

Had they been totally impartial and raised arguments contrary to their perceived interests as well, the legislators might have decided against raising the drinking age. The police – a public bureaucracy like any other – provide some credible record about the social impact of policy decisions because the issue touches their area of specialization. Ultimately, even though the Police’s endorsement strengthened the argument for the solution put forth by MADD, they were only able to succeed because they could take advantage of a policy window that had already been opened by Lightner. Had the Police raised the issue themselves, rather than just agreeing with it, perhaps their motives might have been more suspect and less credible.  As it turned out, when the issue of adolescent drunk driving reached the decision-making agenda, the Police saw it as a chance to attach their favored outcome to the problem. Unlike the groups opposing the proposed change, they were endorsing an already popular initiative and were able to ride the wave of the national mood without their own agenda being examined too closely. This was not however, a one-way system but rather involved an interplay between public opinion as shaped by MADD and others, and the effect on public opinion of the stance of the Police.

As it becomes clearer how this issue landed on the decision-making agenda in the first place and how the police force, as a public institution, influenced the passage of the bill, it is important to explore why the bill was formulated in the manner it was. To accomplish this one must examine the hugely influential role that the Courts had in its creation.

The Role of the Courts in the Formation of the National Drinking Age Act of 1984

In 1987, three years after Reagan signed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act into law, South Dakota, with the support of eight other states, challenged the federal government – claiming that the 1984 law was unconstitutional because it infringed on the states’ sovereignty. In South Dakota v. Dole, the plaintiff argued that the drinking age law was unconstitutional because it overlooked the state’s right to self government, which is protected by the Tenth and Twenty-First Amendments to the constitution. South Dakota lost by a 7-2 vote when the Supreme Court affirmed the lower Court’s decisions.  The fear of judicial review had important implications on the specific formulation of the 1984 drinking age bill because they had anticipated potential legal challenges. This concern meant that Congress chose to pressure, rather than force states into complying with the law. This flexibility allowed the Uniform Drinking Age Act to pass the test of constitutionality when it was challenged in the Supreme Court in 1987.

The 1984 law established a uniform minimum drinking age of 21 nationwide and enforced it by withholding “5 percent of the Federal highway funds … in the [first] fiscal year…[and] 10 percent in the [following] fiscal year,”[38] from states that allowed people under the age of 21 years to consume alcohol.

As the only non-democratically elected legislative body, the Courts occupy a special place in the law-making process. Largely unrestricted by the influence of public opinion, Courts have the opportunity of making decisions that elected politicians would be unable to make. Courts can change the policy formation in many ways by, for example, expanding program benefits and increasing or decreasing federal control of state and local government.[39] With this in mind, lawmakers and strategic actors tend to design policies with an eye to the possibility of future litigation. That means that they might craft the policy to welcome court intervention or possibly design it in an effort to reduce the involvement of Courts in the policy arena.[40] Regardless of  whether this is positive or negative, the legislative body is well-aware of the likelihood of both statutory interpretation and Judicial Review which heavily influences the policy making process.  The 98th Congress certainly was aware of these when they drafted the National Drinking Age Act of 1984 into law.

During the numerous hearings preceding the passage of the bill, the question of its constitutionality was raised repeatedly.  Since the Bill restricted the power of the states in the favor of the federal government and in light of the fact that the Supreme Court had ruled in favor of the States in a similar case just four years earlier, members of Congress were conscious of the possibility of the Courts declaring the law null-and-void on constitutional grounds through the process of Judicial Review[41].

The 1980 Supreme Court decision in  California Retail Liquor Dealers Assn. v. Midcal Aluminum, Inc.(1980) which re-established the power of the “Twenty-First Amendment [granting] the States virtually complete control over whether to permit importation or sale of liquor and how to structure the liquor distribution system,”[42] was still fresh in Congress’ mind.  As was Congress in 1977 “well aware of the role court decisions had played in expanding the program between 1970-1977”,[43] and acted accordingly in the case of Food stamps and other similar cases before that.

This awareness is evident in the formulation of the bill itself. A close examination of the Supreme Court’s Decision in South Dakota v. Dole illustrates this point well. South Dakota argued that the 1984 law violated state rights, and argued specifically that the setting of  “minimum drinking ages is clearly within the “core powers” reserved to the States under 2 of the Amendments”[44], namely the Tenth and the Twenty-First Amendments to the United States Constitution. “The 21st Amendment, adopted in 1933 … repealed Prohibition while authorizing states to regulate or ban importation of alcoholic beverages,”[45]and this amendment was reinforced in the 1980 decision  California Retail Liquor Dealers Assn. v. Midcal Aluminum, Inc.(1980) discussed above. Meanwhile the Tenth Amendment restate[d] the Constitution’s principle of federalism by providing that powers not granted to the national government nor prohibited to the states by the Constitution of the United States are reserved to the states or the people.”[46]

The 98th Congress was clearly aware of these Amendments, and the need to safeguard against violating them. The government’s victory in a 1987 Supreme Court case wherein the majority of the court ruled that the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 did not violate either the Tenth or the Twenty-First Amendments, demonstrated the care Congress had taken in drafting the legislation. Congress’ withholding of federal funding from States that did not comply with the Act was deemed constitutional. The Court argued that the “Constitution empowers Congress to ‘lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts, and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States… [and] incident to this power, Congress may attach conditions on the receipt of federal funds.”[47] Furthermore, although “the spending power is of course not unlimited, but is instead subject to several general restrictions,”[48] the Court concluded that Congress was not overstepping any of these restrictions in the drafting of the bill and hence concluded that the claim of improper coercion ‘was more rhetoric than fact.’  The fact states who refused to comply stood to lose 5 percent of their highway funds in the first year and 10 percent in the next, was according to the Court more like “relatively mild encouragement than coercion.”[49] Hence, it was Congress’ decision to ‘persuade’, by withholding a certain percentage of the state’s highway funds, rather than to coerce the states using the force of law that saved the 1984 law and what ultimately caused it to be deemed constitutional.

If unrestrained by the Constitution and its principal guardian, the Courts, it is likely that Congress, might at the very least have been tempted to use more coercive means to force the states to comply with a national drinking age. Indeed, this would have allowed them to achieve the desired uniformity much more directly, even though a legal challenge (which can take years to wind its way through the courts) might one day have derailed any such proscriptive law.  Although the use of monetary incentives did not necessarily mean that states would comply, this more oblique approach had the desired effect.  Congress was eventually able to win over all fifty states, including ones that had initially been reluctant.

The fact that Congress refrained from coercing the states into implementing the new law and instead used financial pressure illustrates just how influential the Courts were in the processes surrounding the formulation and design of the 1984 drinking age bill. In terms of  policy and law-making decisions, this case illustrates just how important the Courts are in keeping the Legislative Branch of government within the bounds of the Constitution.

We have seen that many factors play a role in the passage of legislation. Passed as a means of targeting problems caused by the drinking habits of young adults, the 1984 Drinking Age serves as an interesting study in the development of successful, if not effective,  public policy.  A number of factors have been at play and interplay which demonstrate how and why conditions are transformed into problems and problems translated into successful legislation.

Analyzing key events leading up to the passage of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act illustrated why the Act emerged as official policy, and gain key insights into how the legislative policy-making process worked.

A persuasive argument has been made to support the thesis that the decision-making process is not a rational process in which key decision makers encounter problems and then try to find solutions to them. Instead the argument is made that the key to understanding agenda and policy change is the coming together of problem, political and policy streams which all exist independently of each other.

Kingdon’s theory relating to the ‘problem’ stream suggests what seems to be obvious, which is that ‘problems’ can remain ‘unnoticed’ indefinitely, because of the difference between a ‘condition’ and a ‘problem’.  Conditions become defined as problems when we come to believe that we should do something about them. Consequently, until there is a change in the problem stream whereby a condition is perceived as a problem that forces the government into action can “the problem stream [can] push some items higher on the agenda.

We have seen that Policy Entrepreneurs like Candy Lightner and the MADD organization are often central to moving a subject up on the agenda and into positions for enactment. This person or these people are advocates willing to invest their time, energy, reputation, and money to promote a position in return for an anticipated political end.  Without the presence of an entrepreneur, the linking of the various ‘streams’ may not have occurred. In fact, it seems clear that organizations and even individuals can sometimes overcome the inertia required to transform the issue from a condition on some peoples’ minds into an urgent problem on the national consciousness, and in so doing succeed in framing both the argument and how it should be addressed.   Critical to the success is one’s ability to focus the attention of the media on an issue which can help ensure the support of the general public which is key to the passage of legislation.  Increased reporting of an issue coupled with spectacular stories is an effective means of applying pressure on legislators to act. Nonetheless, the fact that an issue is accelerates issue.

The fact that key groups endorse a bill is very important, particularly the endorsement of the public bureaucracies like the police force. Even though the Police and other bureaucracies also are motivated by self interest their opinion is respected because they occupy a social place in the policy formation process. Finally, we found that the threat of judicial review means that a bill must be formulated carefully and ideally use positive inducements rather than coercion to encourage compliance and longevity.


[1] Kingdon, John W. Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies. 2nd ed. New York: Longman, 1995.  (p.71)

[2] Kingdon, (p.88)

[3] Kingdon, (p.87)

[4] Kingdon, (p.88)

[5] Reagan Signs law linking federal aid to drinking age – The New York Times, July 18, 1984 (Lexisnexis.com)

[6] The New York Times, March 4, 1984 (lexisnexis.com)

[7] The New York Times, March 4, 1984 (lexisnexis.com)

[8] Christian Science Monitor, April 7, 1984 (lexisnexis.com)

[9] Christian Science Monitor, April 7, 1984 (lexisnexis.com)

[10] Kingdon, (p.108)

[11] Kingdon, (p.88)

[12] http://yria.alcade.net/essays/leg-an.htm – Legislative Analysis for the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, by Alex Koroknay-Palicz

[13] The New York Times, June 9, 1984 (lexisnexis.com)

[14] Kingdon, (p.180)

[15] Kingdon, (p.179)

[16] Kingdon, (p.182)

[17] Kingdon, (p.168)

[18] The Washington Post, April 28, 1982 (lexisnexis.com)

[19] The New York Times, December 19, 1982, Sunday, Late City Final Edition (lexisnexis.com)

[20] http://yria.alcade.net/essays/leg-an.htm – Legislative Analysis for the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, by Alex Koroknay-Palicz

[21] The New York Times, December 19, 1982, Sunday, Late City Final Edition (lexisnexis.com)

[22] The New York Times, March 4, 1984, Sunday, Late City Final Edition (lexisnexis.com)

[23] The Washington Post, June 16, 1984, Saturday, Final Edition (lexisnexis.com)

[24] The Washington Post, June 16 1984 (lexisnexis.com)

[25] The Washington Post, June 16 1984 (lexisnexis.com)

[26] The Washington Post, June 16 1984 (lexisnexis.com)

[27] The Washington Post, June 16 1984 (lexisnexis.com)

[28] The Washington Post, June 16 1984 (lexisnexis.com)

[29] Christian Science Monitor (Boston, MA), April 17, 1984, Tuesday (lexisnexis.com)

[30] Reagan Signs law linking federal aid to drinking age – The New York Times, July 18, 1984 (lexisnexis.com)

[31] Reagan Signs law linking federal aid to drinking age – The New York Times, July 18, 1984 (lexisnexis.com)

[32] The New York Times June 21, 1984, Thursday, Late City Final Edition (lexisnexis.com)

[33] The New York Times June 21, 1984, Thursday, Late City Final Edition (lexisnexis.com)

[34] Reagan Signs law linking federal aid to drinking age – The New York Times, July 18, 1984 (lexisnexis.com)

[35]

[36] Captain Blanda from the Hearing 1983, witness panel #3. (from http://www.lexisnexis.com/congcomp/getdoc?HEARING-ID=HRG-1983-HEC-0094)

[36] Captain Blanda from the Hearing 1983, witness panel #3. (from http://www.lexisnexis.com/congcomp/getdoc?HEARING-ID=HRG-1983-HEC-0094)

[36] Captain Blanda from the Hearing 1983, witness panel #3. (from http://www.lexisnexis.com/congcomp/getdoc?HEARING-ID=HRG-1983-HEC-0094)

[36] Jeffrey M. Pauduano, president undergrad student assn, State University of NY at Genesco, from the 1983 Hearing. Witness panel # 8. (from http://www.lexisnexis.com/congcomp/getdoc?HEARING-ID=HRG-1983-HEC-0094)

[36]Maurice Bierman, pres, Wine and Spirits Retailers of NJ. From the 1983 Hearing, witness panel #8. (from http://www.lexisnexis.com/congcomp/getdoc?HEARING-ID=HRG-1983-HEC-0094)

[37] Moe, Terry M. Union Power and the Education of Children, p.233

[37]Moe, Terry M. Union Power and the Education of Children, p.230

[38] The New York Times, December 2, 1986, Tuesday, Late City Final Edition. Supreme Court roundup Justices are to consider suit over drinking age

[39] From the lecture on the role of the Courts in Public Policy 4/26/2010 (Professor Frisby Stanford University)

[40]From the lecture on the role of the Courts in Public Policy 4/26/2010 (Professor Frisby Stanford University)

[41] From the lecture on the role of the Courts in Public Policy 4/26/2010 (Professor Frisby Stanford University)

[42] SOUTH DAKOTA v. DOLE, 483 U.S. 203 (1987): http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/conlaw/southdak.html

[43] Moe, Terry M. Union Power and the Education of Children, p.222

[44] SOUTH DAKOTA v. DOLE, 483 U.S. 203 (1987): http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/conlaw/southdak.html

[45] The New York Times, December 2, 1986, Tuesday, Late City Final Edition, Supreme Court roundup; Justices are to consider suit over Drinking-age (lexisnexis.com)

[46] Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tenth_Amendment_to_the_United_States_Constitution

[47] SOUTH DAKOTA v. DOLE, 483 U.S. 203 (1987): http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/conlaw/southdak.html

[48] SOUTH DAKOTA v. DOLE, 483 U.S. 203 (1987): http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/conlaw/southdak.html

[49] The Washington Post, June 24, 1987, Wednesday, Final Edition, High Court Upholds Law Linking U.S. Highway Funds, State Drinking Age (lexisnexis.com)

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