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He's at the Center of Congress' Toughest Battles — and Loving It

Ozy

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Washington, May 1, 2017 | comments

By: Daniel Malloy
He's at the Center of Congress' Toughest Battles — and Loving It

The energy is long gone from the cavernous Maryland convention hall when Kevin Brady strides onstage on a Friday afternoon in February. Short, cue-ball-bald and easygoing, he’s as far as it gets from the morning’s entertainment at the Conservative Political Action Conference, when President Donald Trump amped up an electrified crowd. “Are you ready to tear this tax code up by its roots?” the 11-term congressman asks in his flat amalgam of South Dakota and Texas accents, to mild woos from the half-full crowd.

A short speech is followed by questions from the editor-in-chief of the hard-right Breitbart News, who points to criticism of Brady’s proposed border adjustment tax on importers. Brady calmly explains why, in his view, the tax helps American manufacturers. Months later, Trump will avoid the idea in releasing his own deficit-bursting outline for tax reform.

It does not appear terribly fun to chair the House Ways and Means committee these days — witness the two prominent congressional car wrecks: Obamacare repeal and tax reform. Brady admits to having sleepless nights, he tells OZY, but not from stress. He’s newly unshackled after a decade either in the minority in Congress or with a Democrat in the Oval Office. Sure, these bills aren’t whizzing through, but at least they have a chance. “It is honestly hard to sleep because I’m excited about what we’re doing in tax reform, health care and what I hope over time to be able to do in Medicare and Social Security as well,” Brady says, tacking on politically explosive Republican privatization plans that Trump campaigned against because, sure, what the hey. “These are once-in-a-generation challenges.”

Brady finds stress relief from a fractious gang of House Republicans, legions of lobbyists and a madcap White House during weekend bike rides and barbecues with his wife and two teenage sons at home north of Houston. But his laid-back nature masks a mean competitive streak and a relentlessness for lawmaking behind closed doors. He’s also seen far worse in his life than congressional infighting.

When he was 12 years old, his father, an attorney in Rapid City, South Dakota, was gunned down by a vengeful husband during a divorce proceeding in which he represented the wife. Kevin was at football practice when the coach pulled him out and led him to a sheriff’s deputy, and he learned his mother would be raising five children on her own. The loss left a void and an inspiration: William Brady had been active in the local Democratic Party, Kevin’s uncle was a state senator, and his mother encouraged community involvement.

Brady started working for the Rapid City chamber of commerce because he didn’t know what he wanted to do and figured it would expose him to all kinds of businesses. Instead, chamber became a career, and watching his businesses tangle with government turned Brady into a Republican. His first elected post was on the city council at age 26, and after new chamber jobs took him to Texas, Brady joined the state legislature in 1991 and then Congress in 1997. In Washington, he rose through the ranks as a collegial member eager to dig in on tax policy without throwing rhetorical bombs. A tight relationship with current Speaker of the House Paul Ryan didn’t hurt.

Brady, who played baseball at the University of South Dakota, also distinguished himself on the diamond in Congress’ annual charity game — holding down a mean second base at age 62. Rep. John Shimkus, R–Ill., calls Brady the Republicans’ best hitter, even as he ribs his colleague about nagging old-man injuries. Brady earned the pain in the 2003 game, when he dislocated a shoulder and fractured his collarbone on a Pete Rose–style headfirst dive into home plate. (For the record, catcher and then Rep. Tim Holden, D-Pa., dropped the ball and Brady scored the run.)

At a Capitol Hill row house he shares with three other Republicans when the House is in session, Shimkus says Brady is the neat and organized one, matching his “unflappable” nature on the job. “All I know is he pays his rent on time,” adds Shimkus, the landlord.

Behind the scenes, Brady helped forge a badly needed bipartisan reform on how Medicare pays doctors that was signed into law in 2015 after years of failures by Congress. Sage Eastman, a former Ways and Means committee staffer and now a tax lobbyist, says the key was Brady’s patience and tenacity. “No matter how bad it got, no matter how ugly or twisted the policy got, no matter how high tensions ran between members, this was a guy who grabbed everybody, forced them to sit at the table, forced them to grind out a solution,” Eastman says. “He’s taking on bigger and bigger challenges, but I think that same sort of process is what’s necessary.”

As he sells the policies, Brady has hometown concerns to consider. He is the literal embodiment of a chamber of commerce Republican, now a pejorative term in the Tea Party era. Accused of being too cozy with Republican leadership in Washington and too supportive of free trade and government spending, Brady narrowly survived a GOP primary challenge last year. He remains no one’s idea of a Donald Trump Republican. “He’s always been an inside player and, you know, he’s just not a populist rabble-rouser,” says Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University.

Brady tells OZY the Trump administration is still finding its sea legs, and he meets weekly with treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin to iron out the tax strategy. Regardless of the bumps, his dream scenario remains unchanged: Republicans run both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, and Brady holds the coveted chairmanship. He laughs off the question of whether he’s the proverbial dog that caught the car, saying he’s jazzed to push the idea of filling out your taxes on a postcard. Kevin Brady can see home plate from here, and he’s lowering his shoulder.

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