'The children of Reagan' reshaping Congress

March 17, 2011 | By Kathleen Hennessey

The thing Rep. Scott DesJarlais remembers most about the energy crisis of 1979 is collecting extra gas money from his buddies. The Republican from Tennessee was 15.

When President Reagan was renominated by his party in 1984, Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.) was outside the Dallas convention center with his friends, wishing he was a few years older so he could vote for the man he already idolized.

Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) considered himself a Democrat when he went to college in 1993, the first year of Bill Clinton's presidency. By the end of Clinton's second term, Gardner was a small-government Republican, a law student and president of the conservative Federalist Society.

When voters elected 87 new GOP members to the House last year, they chose a crop of young, conservative politicians — more than half in their 30s and 40s — whose perspective differs dramatically from many of their older colleagues. Their arrival has sped up the generational shift in Congress, where baby boomers and their elders are gradually being replaced by members of Generation X.

These politicians belong to the first modern generation of Americans not expected to earn more money than their parents. It's a generation defined by their distrust in institutions and, for many, a deference to markets. They've never been drafted to go to war and they've rarely heard a politician make the case that the federal government can provide the cure for the nation's ills. Many of the young Republicans formed their lasting political notions during the presidency of a man who was born 100 years before they were sworn in. The average age of the GOP freshman is 47, meaning many probably cast their first presidential vote when Reagan was reelected in 1984.

"These are the children of Reagan," said Henry Brady, a political scientist at UC Berkeley.

In their two months in office, this group of young lawmakers has established itself as a distinct and powerful force in the newly Republican-controlled House. Their focus on a drastic reduction in federal spending and their bravado in bucking party leaders has driven the agenda in that chamber.

When House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) proposed a series of budget cuts last month, the freshman class pushed him to up the ante and cut more deeply.

Then, this week, dozens of conservatives voted against a stopgap budget bill backed by Boehner to stave off a government shutdown. Although most of the freshmen voted with Boehner, as a group they are clearly impatient with the pace of the cuts and provided roughly half of the Republican votes against the bill.

"Systemic change to our spending habits is required, and we do not have the luxury of time," freshman Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) said of his "no" vote.

Where it all is going is still unclear, but the answer may be found in the generational traits that unite the freshman GOP class.

The new Republican House members are 10 years younger, on average, than the chamber as a whole, and 15 years younger than the members of the Senate, historically a more gray-haired institution.

The last comparable generational shift in Congress occurred in 1974, when a class of 75 Democrats was elected following President Nixon's resignation. That group included the first flood of early baby boomers, a group that shared a pro-reform agenda and an antiwar zeal.

Many of them proved to have significant staying power, moved up through the leadership ranks and changed the way Congress operated.

Though demographers differ on where precisely one generation ends and another begins, many describe Gen-Xers as those who were born between the early 1960s and early 1980s.

With this group, early awareness of Vietnam and Watergate — or learning about it later — helped develop a perspective that America is endangered, said Neil Howe, a leading expert on generations.

"There is a sense of living near the edge and living near disaster and breakdown. That is still there today," Howe said, noting the way that many of the GOP freshmen discuss the current fiscal situation in the U.S.

Though plenty of Gen-Xers became Democrats — President Obama at 49 just ekes in under Howe's definition — the current crop of Gen X politicians leans to the right, according to Howe's research.

These young conservatives did not relate to the stereotypical portrait of the scruffy Gen X slacker in plaid. Instead, they identified with another cultural model.

"People joked that I was an Alex P. Keaton when I was a kid," said New Hampshire Rep. Frank Guinta, 40, referencing Michael J. Fox's briefcase-toting young Republican character in the 1980s sitcom "Family Ties." "I was reading the Wall Street Journal at a young age. I was engaged in the markets."

Political scientists note that political affiliation and notions of government are typically formed between the ages of 15 and 25, and solidified by 30. That puts many new members of Congress firmly in the Reagan-Bush era, a time that brought hordes of new, young and mostly white faces into the Republican tent.

Some freshmen described vague remembrances of the Reagan era as a subtle turnaround in mood they could feel even as children.

"I remember as an elementary school student, it was waiting in line to get gas, it was 'put a sweater on,' it was kind of depressing," said Lankford, 43. "And then this 70-year-old man just stood up and started just speaking out. I don't know why, but a lot of people in my generation heard the message and things turned around."

Having raised taxes and boosted federal spending, Reagan would not have met many of the hard benchmarks now being set by this class of the lawmakers.

"Often, the children are more strident than the parent," Brady said.

Still, Reagan's mantra — that government is the problem, not the solution — seemed to strike a chord with a group already predisposed to suspicion about institutions. And perhaps, not surprisingly, it did not immediately inspire them to run for office.

The freshman profile bears that out. About a third are holding office for the first time, after careers as doctors, professionals and small-business owners.

The outsider status gives them a fresh eye on policy and a pragmatic approach, some argue.

"These kids want to know why on everything," said Rep. Ralph M. Hall (R-Texas) who at 87 is the oldest member of the House.

Challenging authority also fits with the Gen X profile. As a group, this generation isn't inclined to defer to traditional power structures.

As they face the possibility of shutting down the government over a budget standoff, many freshmen have only vague memories of the 1995-96 budget talks that came to such drastic measures.

"I remember it as a time when I realized people were trying to get government to do too much for too many," said Gardner, 36.

Others have even hazier memories of Clinton-era Washington. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a 33-year-old Republican freshman from Illinois, says he doesn't remember thinking very much about the last budget shutdown. He was in high school, after all.

But rather than see his youth as an impediment to the wisdom of experience, Kinzinger sees other advantages.

"The thing is, we're making decisions that I'm going to be around to see the effects of in 50 years," he said. "Some of these people aren't, ya know?"