Wisconsin might become the first state to drop the legal drinking age to 19.
Three Wisconsin GOP lawmakers, one of whom is the former president of the Wisconsin Tavern league, Republican Rep. Rob Swearingen, circulated a bill Wednesday that introduced such a measure to amend the country’s federal law that set the drinking age at 21.
One of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Adam Jarchow, wrote in a memo to his colleagues echoing a sentiment harkening back to the ratification of the 26th amendment -- which, signed by President Richard Nixon, dropped the voting age from 21 to 18 in 1971. The Journal Sentinel reports that in the memo, Jarchow wrote, “Nineteen-year-olds have legally been [adults] for one year, can enlist in the military and be sent thousands of miles away to fight, but can’t ‘enjoy an alcoholic beverage.’”
There are, however, still several legal hurdles for the bill to overcome before it can become state law.
It would need, first, the support of other GOP leaders so that it can be brought up for a vote in the state’s legislature. At the moment, the leader of the state senate and Governor Scott Walker have yet to comment on the bill -- and without their support, it cannot make passage. And perhaps more importantly, the state would have to forfeit federal highway funding if it amends US federal law.
Introduced in 1984 and passed by Congress that same year, the National Minimum Drinking Age Act raised the legal drinking age to 21. It also stipulated that any state that violated the law, as a condition, would lose up to 10% of funding towards the state’s highways. In Wisconsin, this would translate into a loss of about $53.7 million.
Rep. Jarchow explained that the impact of the bill could save the state “countless hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars” in the efforts to enforce strict drinking laws, especially on college campuses. These are efforts, he continues, "that could be used for other important issues such as drug abuse and sexual assaults.”
But what impact would such a bill make if, according to a governmental study, drinking culture has substantially diminished in the last decade? USA Today found that underage drinking among those “from age 12 to 20 dropped by 21%” and that binge drinking in the same age group has also decreased by 26.4%. And additionally, would the impact of the bill necessarily offset the loss in federal funding?
The 26th amendment made passage in Congress to become law, because young men at the age of 18, who were conscripted into war, had demanded voting rights. The two are, perhaps, incomparable by any measure, but lifting the restrictions on drinking could very well echo other American values that once prohibited liquor. For now, especially those under 21, many will have to wait with bated breath before any outcome of the bill can be reached.