Despite the threatened loss of $7.4 million in federal highway funds, a D.C. City Council committee rejected yesterday a proposed bill that would raise the drinking age in the District to 21.
The council's Consumer and Regulatory Affairs committee, headed by John Ray (D-At Large), refused to succumb to congressional pressure, voting 4 to 1 against the measure.
Only council member John A. Wilson (D-Ward 2), the bill's sponsor, supported it.
"I don't think this legislation will harm young people or the business community," he said.
"It tells something about values we live by."
Wilson said the District should not risk the loss of highway funds when "we are trying to figure out how to tax people to get money for things we need."
Congress adopted a program last year to try to force states to raise their drinking ages for all alcoholic beverages, and it set a deadline of October 1986 for enacting such legislation.
States that fail to approve the drinking age measure by then will lose 5 percent of their federal highway funds, and 10 percent if such legislation is not enacted by October 1987.
Thirty-one states, including Maryland and Virginia, have complied.
Effective in July, Maryland raised its drinking age for all alcoholic beverages to 21.
In Virginia, the drinking age is 21 for wine and liquor and 19 for beer. The beer drinking age is set to rise to 20 in 1986 and to 21 in 1987.
Ray called Congress' drinking age program "blackmail" and praised his council colleagues for rejecting the measure.
"It is hypocritical to pass such legislation when most of us keep beer and wine in our homes and when we see it on television," Ray said.
He called the drinking age question a political issue and said 18-year-olds, who are old enough to be drafted and get married, should be treated as responsible adults.
Proponents of raising the drinking age have argued that if the District does not raise its age it will become "an oasis" for young people from neighboring states where the drinking age is 21.
But Ray, citing city police statistics for January through August 1978, said only 2.2 percent of the persons arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol were under age 20.
He said the greatest number of arrests for the offense, 19.5 percent, occurred among the 31-to-35 age group.
Statistics provided by the D.C Superior Court showed that as of Aug. 1, 5,376 persons had pleaded guilty this year to drunk driving offenses.
Of that total, 118 persons or 2.1 percent were under the age of 21; only 23 of those persons were District residents, Ray said.
Council member Polly Shackleton (D-Ward 3) read a constituent letter that said police figures show that the 18-to-21 age group does not account for a significant number of arrests for driving under the influence.
She complained that the bill "would penalize a segment of the city's population that is really not to blame for the problems of drunken driving."