WASHINGTON—The House’s newest and perhaps most powerful committee chairman is a 60-year-old Texas Republican who began life in a family of stalwart Democrats from South Dakota and lost his father at age 12 in a courtroom shooting.
Rep. Kevin Brady, whose bulldog-looks belie a softer manner, took the helm of the Ways and Means Committee last week. That puts the 19-year House veteran at the forefront of key issues Congress will tackle heading into the 2016 election year, including taxes, trade and benefit programs such as Medicare and Social Security.
Brady’s Chamber of Commerce career before entering Congress molded a mainstream conservative viewpoint, yet he is well regarded by harder-line conservatives. But he has a tough act to follow: the popular Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who led the committee until becoming speaker last month after a revolt by hard-line conservatives pushed former Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to resign.
Brady, who falls short of the oratory spark and reputation for generating ideas that Ryan enjoys, has latched himself to the 45-year-old.
“We’re going to follow the speaker’s lead,” Brady said in an interview last week. He said House Republicans “want us to tackle the big issues, and they want to be involved.”
Involvement has been a major demand of the House Freedom Caucus, around 40 hard-core conservatives whose frustration with being muscled aside by Boehner fueled their antipathy for him. Ryan, R-Wis., is working with conservatives on giving lawmakers more say on legislation and other decisions.
Brady says he, too, is willing to accommodate them, though no Freedom Caucus members serve on Ways and Means. So far, he has won praise from members of the group.
“Very, very positive,” Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., said of Brady, adding that several conservatives floated Brady’s name as a potential speaker in the chaotic days after Boehner resigned.
“I don’t think the chairman will come under pressure” from the Freedom Caucus “because we’ll have the opportunity to offer amendments,” said another member, Rep. Rod Blum, R-Iowa.
Some conservatives remain wary.
Adam Brandon, CEO of FreedomWorks, complimented Brady but said his group of anti-regulation conservatives wants to make sure he does not pursue a narrow agenda “dreamed up by some lobbyists.”
Democrats consider him someone they can work with.
“Kevin and I don’t agree probably on any public policy. But he’s not an unpleasant person,” said Ways and Means veteran Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash.
Brady, from a solidly Republican district north of Houston, headed the trade subcommittee until 2013. That’s when he took over the health subcommittee and helped lead many of the House’s GOP’s repeated, unsuccessful efforts to roll back President Barack Obama’s health care law.
As chairman, Brady’s portfolio is much wider.
Measures he hopes will get Obama’s signature include legislation making dozens of expiring tax breaks permanent, altering taxation of U.S. companies that operate abroad and easing trade barriers with Pacific Rim countries, though Brady said he has taken no final position on that recently negotiated treaty.
Another goal will be longer range—broadly rewriting tax laws with lower rates for individuals and businesses, and fewer loopholes. The issue has gridlocked Washington for decades.
“He’s coming to this job at a time of expectations, but the expectations have always been there” for Ways and Means chairmen, said former Rep. Bill Archer, R-Texas, who led the committee in the 1990s.
Brady calls Ryan coach of the House Republicans and himself “the quarterback of the Ways and Means team.” Sports analogies seem fitting for Brady, a star athlete in baseball and other sports while growing up in Rapid City, South Dakota.
As a 12-year-old at football practice one day, Brady’s coach tapped his shoulder and guided him to a policeman nearby. That’s when he learned his father, Bill, an attorney representing a woman in a divorce trial, had been shot to death in the courtroom by her husband. That left Brady’s mother, Nancy, with five children to raise.
The family purchased and ran a campground, and Brady threw himself into various sports.
His high school wrestling coach recalls that Brady, injured and out of shape, spent one night sweating off pounds in the gym when a teammate was hurt and Brady was too heavy to compete in his 132-pound weight class. He lost the necessary weight—Brady says 12 pounds—and wrestled, losing his match but preventing his team from forfeiting.
“They were tough kids,” the now-retired coach, David Ploof, said about Brady, his two brothers and two sisters. “They had to be.”
Brady worked his way through the University of South Dakota with odds jobs including maintenance worker and bartender. He took a job at the local Chamber of Commerce, then started working for Chambers of Commerce in Texas.
Brady’s parents were active Democrats in South Dakota and an uncle was a Democratic state senator. Brady said he became a Republican while working for the chambers, where he spent time helping businesses.
“You can’t help but know how government burdens those job creators,” he said. “So that is where the light bulb went off for me.”