Congress’s Mr. Nice Guy Begins a Tax Fight for the History Books


Kevin Brady may be the most well-liked member of Congress, but he’s about to offend colleagues, lobbyists and voters alike in his quest to rewrite the U.S. tax code to end special breaks for businesses and individuals while cutting tax rates.

The humble, ultra-disciplined Republican from Texas has met ample resistance ahead of the planned release of a House bill on Wednesday. Realtors and home builders fear he’ll damage the housing market. Investment managers — and President Donald Trump — are keeping a wary eye on how he’ll change 401(k) retirement accounts. Members of his own party bucked his call to repeal individual tax breaks that help people in high-tax states, and they’ve already won a partial victory. Democrats say he’s trying to enrich the wealthy.

“Certainly the tax policies he is pursuing, and the budget he supported, aren’t particularly friendly to the middle and lower income groups,” said Representative John Yarmuth of Kentucky, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee. “However, I would agree completely that he is a very kind and warm person. He’s always fun to talk to.”

The $1.5 trillion question in Washington this week is whether Brady, who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, will seize the moment and deliver landmark tax legislation despite the opposition. If he can tell legions of lobbyists and fellow lawmakers “no” while holding enough votes, he could become a legend by shepherding the first successful tax overhaul since 1986.

Or he could fail and be remembered as a nice guy who rose to one of Congress’s most powerful posts but couldn’t capitalize on it.

Message Discipline

Brady, who wears an Apple Watch everywhere, isn’t the most charismatic politician, but he’s a smooth operator who has learned at least one trick of surviving in Washington: He never goes off script. He holds a twice-weekly 10-minute conversation with reporters in the Capitol and — almost without fail — manages to avoid making news. And he’s meticulous, demanding that his staff ensure all Ways and Means Committee documents have consistent formatting and branding, said one former aide.

He landed the chairman’s post in November 2015 after Paul Ryan — who had defeated him for it the year before — was dragged into the Speaker’s chair amid a power vacuum. It’s a powerful perch; Ways and Means oversees taxes, trade and entitlements. Some past chairmen have been known for their firm control of the panel. Brady is viewed as more of a consensus builder.

He’s “a real calming personality,” said House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, who rooms with Brady in Washington. But Scalise hastens to add that Brady’s willing to say no — to anyone — to get a tax bill passed. “Don’t mistake his calm demeanor as a weakness.”

In one of his first big tests, Brady bowed to Republican members from high-tax states including New York and New Jersey and agreed to preserve a federal tax break for individuals’ state and local property-tax payments. That pact may win some GOP votes, but it got nowhere with a coalition of groups including the National Association of Realtors that wants to preserve deductions for a broader set of state and local taxes, including income taxes.

That group, Americans Against Double Taxation, said in a Saturday news release that it “will vigorously oppose this plan.”

Tight Schedule

On Wednesday, Brady plans to roll out his tax bill after months of crafting it largely in secrecy. Then he must guide it through his committee and the full House by Thanksgiving in order to stay on Ryan’s schedule and deliver a bill to Trump before year’s end.

Trump isn’t making that task any easier. Last week, the president said on Twitter that Americans will see no change to their 401(k) retirement accounts in tax legislation — a red line that Brady has not embraced. Still, he has nothing but praise for the president.

“My relationship with President Trump has been excellent,” Brady said amid the 401(k) flap. “He calls regularly. We talk through key elements of tax reform, trading ideas, lay out our approach on different areas.”

The legislation is expected to cut the corporate tax rate to 20 percent from 35 percent and provide across-the-board rate cuts for individuals — except, perhaps, for those earners at the very top. Challenging — and as-yet unrevealed — portions of the plan include changing the tax rate for other businesses to help small entrepreneurs without creating a giveaway to the top 1 percent.

Brady will also have to close enough loopholes and special breaks to prevent blowing out the federal deficit. The budget that Congress has approved allows for a $1.5 trillion revenue loss.

“Tax reform is legislatively the biggest challenge of any generation,” Brady, 62, said earlier this month.

Reagan’s Commandment

Brady strictly adheres to Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment: Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican. That applies even to those Republicans standing between him and success — whether it’s the conservatives who blocked his health care bill or the moderates now threatening his tax bill over the state and local tax deduction.

He himself is a down-the-line conservative who wants to lower taxes, cut spending and enact right-of-center social legislation. He was born in Vermillion, South Dakota, a town of about 10,000, according to the most recent U.S. Census. After college, he worked with local Chamber of Commerce affiliates there, and continued that work after moving to Texas in his late 20s. He served in the Texas legislature for eight years.

Even Democrats who despise his policy views like him personally. “I get along with him very well,” said Richard Neal of Massachusetts, the top Democrat on the Ways and Means panel. “I’m going to use the amendment process to attack the bill, I’m not going to attack Kevin Brady.”

Life Lessons

When Brady was 12, his father, an attorney, was shot to death. The gunman was the husband of a woman whom Brady’s father was helping to leave an abusive marriage. That sort of experience “taught him some life lessons,” said Representative Tom Reed, a New York Republican.

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