Hawkings

Kevin Brady: A Low-Profile Tax Writer for the Highest-Stress Time

Texan may be the most obscure Ways and Means chairman in such a pivotal role

Chairman Kevin Brady, R-Texas, places books of the current tax code on the dais, during a House Ways and Means Committee markup of the Republicans’ tax reform plan titled the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, in Longworth Building on Monday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Millions of taxpayers, not to mention seemingly all of K Street’s lobbyists, are focused this week on the work of a man precious few outside the Beltway have ever heard of — but who’s among the most powerful people at the Capitol at the moment.

Perhaps expecting Kevin Brady to be a household name is asking too much of the typical American household, where two out of three people can’t name their own member of Congress.

Still, it’s unheard of in modern history for a chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, a pre-eminently powerful panel on the Hill for more than two centuries, to bring such a low national profile to the work of captaining such a potentially far-reaching legislative crusade. 

But such is the lot of the 62-year-old Texas Republican, who’s at the midpoint of conducting a weeklong markup of legislation reconfiguring the IRS rulebook — with the goal of delivering significant tax relief to corporations and something more modest to most middle-class families.

One for the history books?

At $1.5 trillion over the coming decade, it would rank as one of the deepest tax cuts in American history, as well as the first achievement-for-the-history-books by this Republican Congress and President Donald Trump. But for that to happen, Brady must finish navigating the welter of complex and contentious amendments in his committee, secure House passage by preventing more than 22 defections among his fellow Republicans, and then strike an agreement with senators who have been pushing a somewhat different package.

Who's Getting to Write the Tax Bill

 

Each of those tasks is enormous, and the pressure is only compounded by the rapid pace Trump is pushing. Brady, who’s represented the outermost suburbs north of Houston for almost 21 years, has never experienced anything this intense during a chairmanship that began two years ago this week.

Brady has been close to the center of past legislative fights that made headlines, thanks to holding top GOP seats on the Ways and Means subcommittees on trade and health care. Along the way, he’s developed a reputation as one of the Hill’s more workmanlike collaborators and exceptionally patient listeners — someone who projects a sunny disposition and brings an easy sense of humor, but rarely commands a room or showboats at a news conference.

To his detractors, such amiability in the legislative clutches, and his preference for facilitating over dictating, are signs of weakness in a chairman who’s subject to being outmaneuvered — either by his own House leadership or a rump group within his own caucus, or by his negotiating counterparts in the Senate.

To his allies, his pragmatic style and his overt suppression of ego are precisely what’s called for at the moment — because the only way to get such a sweeping measure enacted, with such narrow margins for error, is to put pride of authorship aside and remain malleable about compromises and the picking of winners and losers until the last hour.

“We’re still on a timetable for getting it to the president’s desk by the end of the year,” Brady told radio host Hugh Hewitt on Tuesday, mainly because “we’ll work to continue to improve it at every step.”

Maneuvering room

To that end, he said, the bill may yet be altered to include repeal of the 2010 health care law’s individual insurance mandate — an idea championed by Trump and Freedom Caucus conservatives that Brady had appeared to set aside only a day earlier.

The seeming about-face drew another round of vituperative broadsides from Ways and Means Democrats, whose blistering attacks against GOP fiscal policy have sometimes strayed into personal criticisms of the chairman, who has generally chosen to slough them off.

Brady’s only non-negotiable, during the months of preliminary test-marketing that preceded his bill’s release last week, was that the tax code be made simple enough that most individuals can file their annual returns on a double-sided postcard. Several other items near the top of his wish list, most notably a “border adjustment tax” on imported goods, were jettisoned along the way with hardly a public peep of disgruntlement.

Such recalibrating is more in line with a lawmaker who takes more pride in tactical savvy behind the scenes than in driving for what he wants out in public — which is the model practiced by most of the most successful Ways and Means bosses of the postwar period.

Watch: With Trump Touring Asia, Can Republicans Find Focus on Tax Bill?

The previous chairman, Wisconsin’s Paul D. Ryan, had been a vice presidential candidate and the undisputed leader on House GOP fiscal policy by the time he got the gavel in 2015 — and, before his elevation to speaker just months later, got the ball slowly rolling on the current tax overhaul effort.

His Republican predecessor Bill Thomas of California was nationally known as a combustible conservative when he engineered the creation of a Medicare prescription drug benefit in 2003, while Democrat Charles B. Rangel of New York was a polarizing liberal force long before he took the lead pushing trade, tax and economic stimulus measures a decade ago.

Democrat Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois truly was a household name when 75,000 people responded to his nationally televised invitation to “write Rosty” with their hopes for what became the historic tax overhaul of 1986. And Arkansas Democrat Wilbur Mills was widely termed “the most powerful man in Washington” during his run as chairman, which included writing the bill creating Medicare and Medicaid.

Defying stereotypes

Brady shares few of their personality traits. Bald and stocky, he presents as the physical antithesis of the congressional stereotype. He claimed the gavel at the House’s most influential policymaking committee despite a record of raising money for and donating to colleagues that’s modest by current House GOP leadership standards.

He’s not much of a presence on the fundraising circuit and spends plenty of weeknights in the Capitol Hill townhouse he shares with three House GOP colleagues: Steve Scalise of Louisiana, Erik Paulsen of Minnesota and John Shimkus of Illinois.

Rather than position himself as a political force of nature in his own right, his favored parlor trick among his colleagues is his impersonation of the fabled football coach Vince Lombardi. (“What do winners do?” he asks. “They do what losers won’t.”)

Brady is in the ideological mainstream of today’s rightward-leaning House Republicans. This year, he’s voted the way Trump wanted virtually without exception, and the bellwether conservative advocacy group Heritage Action said he’s voted the “right way” just as often as the average rating for all House Republicans.

He grew up in South Dakota, the second of five children. When he was 12, their father, a lawyer, was shot and killed in a Rapid City courtroom by the deranged spouse of his client. An outfielder on the University of South Dakota baseball team, he now plays second base in the annual Congressional Baseball Game. (He was the Republicans’ MVP in 2014.)

He left college one credit short of graduating, completing his degree only after his opponent in his first race for the Texas Legislature made an issue of it. The only other blemish on his record was pleading guilty to drunken driving in 2005 while attending his college’s homecoming.

Brady’s initial career was running local Chamber of Commerce chapters. The first was in Rapid City, where he also won a city council seat in 1982, but resigned after three months for his first job in Texas. He won a seat in the state House eight years later. Six years after that, he bested a crowded field for an open seat in Congress, which he’s held with ease since.

Brady’s ideological creed was born of his Chamber of Commerce days — he’s out to give businesses “the freedom to buy, sell and compete with as little government interference as possible.”

He often adds: “The old saying in Chamber of Commerce work: ‘If there’s bad news, you deliver it. If there’s good news, your business leaders deliver it.’ You are always helping push others, our business leaders, toward the spotlight.”

Of course, if the tax overhaul does become law, longstanding precedent will get magnified by the president’s own credit-claiming zeal, and the statute will surely be referred to as the Trump Tax Cut — with Brady’s name relegated to the small type reserved for supporting players.

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