In 1984, as a novice lawmaker and member of the minority chamber in the Senate, Lautenberg wrote a bill to withhold federal highway funds from states that did not set 21 as a minimum age to buy and possess alcohol.
After the federal voting age was lowered to 18 in 1971, many states followed suit by setting minimum drinking ages at 18 to 20.
By the early 1980s, the problem of drunken driving by teenagers was getting widespread attention. Reagan signed the bill, and by 1988, every state had a legal drinking age of 21. The law is widely credited with reducing the number of highway fatalities.
Lautenberg, a former smoker, often attacked tobacco companies’ advertising tactics. During a 1989 debate over smoking, when tobacco-state lawmakers asked what would become of tobacco farmers, Lautenberg scoffed, “Grow soybeans or something.”
He was one of two prime sponsors of the 1989 law that banned smoking on all domestic flights of less than six hours, one of several anti-smoking laws he championed and one that paved the way for more restrictions on where people could light up.
Another frequent target was the gun industry. “Common sense tells you that there are more than enough dangerous weapons on the streets,” said Lautenberg, who sponsored numerous gun-control measures, a few of which were enacted.
He also spent much of his political career pushing for funding for Superfund, a program that pays for cleanup of environmentally hazardous sites.
Lautenberg was a reliable vote for traditional Democratic policies, though he bucked President Bill Clinton in 1993 on the budget because he said it raised taxes and didn’t cut spending enough. He also voted against Clinton on the North American Free Trade Agreement, opposed by the staunch labor allies Lautenberg had come to depend on.
Later in his career, he became a foil for Christie.