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Kevin Brady, U.S. Congressman, approaches a framed photo hanging on the wall of his Conroe district office. It was taken in 2001, a few years after he was elected to Congress for the first time. Forty-one lawmakers on the House Ways and Means Committee are seated behind a two- tiered dais, with blue curtains and decorative Corinthian columns stretching to the ceiling behind them. As if posed for a school yearbook portrait, most smile vacantly, impatiently.

Brady, 61, has been surveying flood damage all morning—the mud speckled on his cowboy boots proves it. “So there’s Paul and me,” he says. “We started way over here.” He points to his younger self, seven seats from the end of the front row, head tilted to the side. House Speaker Paul Ryan sits just to his left.

“That’s how we’ve become friends over the years, working our way up.” Then Brady traces a meandering path to the middle of the second row, where the committee’s chairman wields his gavel. He pauses for a beat, staring at the image, his finger hovering over the elevated leather chair he now occupies. “It’s a neat reminder.”

Compact like a second baseman, Brady has a square face and a gleaming bald head. Last November, a Republican steering panel nominated him to replace Ryan and manage Ways and Means, the oldest committee in the lower chamber, and arguably its most prestigious. Effectively, Ways and Means finances the federal government; no bill concerning taxation, health policy or retirement programs can slip through without its members’ approval. Brady controls what’s brought up for consideration and what’s shelved for another cycle.

It’s hard to overstate the power of the committee. With such a broad jurisdiction, Brady and his colleagues are attractive targets for lobbyists and big-money donors of all stripes. And it’s no coincidence that eight presidents, eight vice presidents and four Supreme Court justices once called Ways and Means home.

Unlike some Beltway power players, the newly influential Republican from The Woodlands lacks pretension. Brady’s utilitarian office is tucked into an ordinary concrete-and-glass building, paces from I-45 and an adjacent IHOP. Random mementos rest on cabinets—a series of ceremonial hard hats, a bronze statue of a squirrel—but nothing ostentatious. Aside from that old photo, it’s hard to find much of anything signifying his legislative ascent.

That Brady keeps it simple, routinely refunding unused portions of his congressional staff’s allotted budget, is sound politics, no doubt—how would it look if the man grasping the country’s purse strings couldn’t balance his own books? But it’s also reflective of his personality: He’s an easy-going guy with a quantitative bent who makes the most of the cards he’s dealt.

Brady grew up in South Dakota, the second of five. When he was 12, his father, William, was murdered in a grisly courtroom shooting; an abusive husband on the hook for $3,000 in alimony pulled a .38-caliber revolver and shot dead his ex-wife as well as Brady’s father, her attorney. Forced, unexpectedly, to care for her sizable family alone, Brady’s mother pushed her kids into every activity imaginable—sports, school clubs, scouts, church groups. “She decided a good defense was a good offense,” Brady says.

At the University of South Dakota, Brady played baseball and participated in student government. To pay his way, he took odd jobs: sheet metal work, bartending, a stint in the university relations department, a gig DJing at a disco club, the graveyard shift at a meatpacking plant. Through all of it, he kept in mind four basic principles his mom preached: independence, optimism, faith in God, and respect for community. “That still shapes me,” he says. “That’s still why we’re doing what we’re doing.”

An offer to run the Beaumont Chamber of Commerce drew Brady to Texas in 1982. He charged into town in a new Mustang convertible, top down, stereo blasting. At the time, he didn’t know a single Texan, but was immediately struck by their generosity and “can- do spirit.” His work helping businesses navigate the minutiae of worker’s compensation and unemployment sparked an interest in public policy; he claimed a seat in the Texas legislature in 1990, then won a special election to replace congressman Jack Fields six years after that, taking over the district he’s now represented for nearly two decades.

Though the top-down Mustang is now retired, Brady remains less robotic than most politicians of his stature. He also dreams big. Along with Speaker Ryan, he’s spent months building the case for comprehensive tax reform, a “once-in-a-generation” task that, given its complexity, will be “terrifically difficult,” he says, to pull off. A favorite of the oil and gas industry and a supply-sider to his core, Brady wants to establish a simpler and flatter tax code, eliminating special-interest loopholes and outdated deductions so Congress can feasibly lower rates across the board without falling further into debt.

It’s an approach that Democrats and liberal think tanks say will not work: Offsetting the proposed loss in revenue is impossible, they maintain, without scaling back popular tax expenditures or taxing wealthy households more aggressively. They’d like to see Brady detail what specific types of loopholes he’d prefer to see closed, a question he’s reckoning with but has so far left unanswered.

Despite his position, Brady feels his hands are tied, thanks to ever-diminishing common ground. The country is growing more unequal, more fractured. Voters, he thinks, are “harder-edged.” His party’s own presumptive presidential nominee isn’t helping matters. (Brady’s advice to Trump? “Personally, I’d say knock off the insults.”)

Back in The Woodlands each weekend, Brady always gets an earful from his opinionated constituents, he says, whether at the grocery store, the YMCA, or at town hall meetings. (His staff holds more than 50 each year.) Sitting beneath a row of flags, he pauses to consider how the country’s mood has shifted since he was initially elected. “It’s harder to inspire people than it used to be,” he says. “But I haven’t given up on that either.”

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