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Young turks and old bulls

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(Read caption) House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio pauses while holding his last news conference of the 113th Congress on Dec. 11, 2014, on Capitol Hill. Boehner said he was looking forward to what he called 'the new American Congress' that convenes in January with a Republican majority in the House and the Senate.

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Wise words from a long-departed lawmaker help explain why we didn’t have a government shutdown this month, and why the next two years of Congress might be a bit different from the recent past.

Barber Conable, a moderate Republican from upstate New York, retired in 1984, and wrote a column reflecting on life in the House:

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Old as I am, I recall being a “young turk” at one point and participating noisily in a successful effort to change House rules which the then Establishment found adequate. I learned a lot about the institution from the effort, vented my frustrations, and gradually became part of the Establishment myself. Youth presses age, provides a good deal of the dynamic and the dialogue, and eventually ages. Partisans may not like the tranquility of my view of these recent histrionics, but I find reassurance in the cycle of renewal.

The next few years saw an influx of new young turks. Several GOP lawmakers who gained their seats in 1990 formed “The Gang of Seven,” which sometimes used flamboyant tactics to criticize House ethics.  One of the gang was a young Ohioan named John Boehner, who was also a passionate advocate for a constitutional amendment to balance the budget.

Just as Conable could have foreseen, Young Turk Boehner aged into the Establishment. As a committee chair in 2001, he worked with President Bush and Sen. Ted Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts to pass the No Child Left Behind Act. Now, as speaker of the House, he has often come under fire from another generation of young turks, who criticize him for not being aggressive enough.

In the fall of 2013, these young turks helped trigger a partial government shutdown, which turned into a political debacle. Polls showed harm to the Republican image, but in a lucky break for the party, the rollout of Obamacare was an even bigger mess, which soon overshadowed the shutdown. Reflecting on their glimpse at the political abyss, a number of the younger Republicans decided that they did not want to travel that road again. Someday, when they advanced into positions of leadership, they will have to tell yet another generation of young turks about the lessons of last fall.

Capitol Hill is not about to turn into Harmonyland. The divisions between the parties are deep and real. Outside ideological groups keep pressing members on both sides to take hard lines. Still, there are signs of creeping pragmatism. Although the conservative Heritage Foundation warned that the ABLE Act (tax-favored savings accounts for the disabled) would expand the welfare state, most Republicans voted for it.

The seasoning of the newer members has both good and bad sides.  On the one hand, they stand to become more prudent in their positions and skillful in their work. On the other hand, some of them might get a little too comfortable. As Nicol Rae and I explain in a recent academic article, too many of the previous generation of young turks fell prey to the temptations of Washington and ended up in ethics trouble.

Today’s young turks, table-pounders, and outsiders will be tomorrow’s old bulls, dealmakers, and insiders. For good or ill, it’s the way of Washington.

Jack Pitney writes his Looking for Trouble blog exclusively for the Monitor.