Kevin Brady: The Texas Republican Behind the Tax Overhaul

By Siobhan Hughes and Richard Rubin Features Dow Jones Newswires

When Texas congressman Kevin Brady needs a sense of peace, he reaches into his desk drawer, pulls out a prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi and props it up on a Diet Coke can for easy viewing.

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"Where there is hatred, let me sow love," the prayer says, "where there is despair, hope."

Mr. Brady, the 62-year-old chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, might need it in the weeks ahead, as his Republican Party hurtles toward a fiery debate about the future of the U.S. tax code.

The Constitution mandates that changes in tax law originate in the House, making his committee, the House tax-writing committee, the focal point of Republican ambitions to lower corporate and some individual tax rates and simplify the U.S. tax code.

Opposition from Democrats, competing interests within the Republican Party itself, intense pressure from K Street lobbyists and a compressed calendar ensure that the amiable Ways and Means chief is about to be put to the test.

Republicans from high-tax states, for instance, are angry about a proposal to limit deductions for state and local taxes while U.S. home builders are gearing up for a fight over other lost deductions. That is on top of the occasional pot-stirring by Mr. Trump, who last shot down the idea of scaling back rules that allow households to park pretax earnings into 401(k) retirement-savings plans.

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"I keep it in my Ways and Means drawer at the dais," Mr. Brady said of the peace prayer in an interview last week. He relies on it during bill-writing sessions "that get a little emotional."

"You've got to stay calm," he said.

House Republicans, under pressure to score a major legislative win during President Donald Trump's first year in office, on Wednesday will unveil a tax plan that they view as essential to maintaining their majority but that is starting to draw critics. Mr. Brady needs to get the bill out of his committee within days to stick to a calendar that will clear it through the House by Thanksgiving and get it to the president's desk before the New Year.

Democrats say the GOP is advancing ideas favoring the rich. While many praise Mr. Brady's easygoing style, some Democrats also complain he is running too much of the bill-writing process behind closed doors.

He is "feeding out information with an eyedropper" to GOP members and giving Democrats nothing at all, said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D., Ore.), who has been on the Ways and Means committee for a decade.

"I have specifically asked the chairman to make sure that this is done during the day time," said Rep. Richard Neal (D., Mass.), the top Democrat on the tax panel, at an event this month referring to the writing of the tax bill. "I don't think doing tax reform with this complication should be done in the middle of the night."

Mr. Brady said the bill will be considered in committee largely during daytime hours but he does want to finish quickly.

Some rank-and-file Republicans even grumble about being left out. Mr. Brady believes that sorting through tough issues in private allows for freer debate and progress on an overhaul.

"Only a majority on this committee have the power to begin tax reform," Mr. Brady said. He said seeing "this through to the end" requires that group of Republicans to "really stretch ourselves here. And part of that is not inviting others into the room. We all worked hard to get here."

Mr. Brady was passed over for the House Ways and Means Committee chairmanship when the slot opened in 2014, but got the job after Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.), who beat him out, was elected speaker in 2015.

He also lost his bid to play second base on the congressional Republican baseball team, filling in only after the starting second baseman, House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R., La.), was shot in an attack during baseball practice in June. The Texan once dislocated his shoulder diving into home plate during a high-profile annual congressional baseball game.

"He's a fighter -- he battles you," said Mr. Scalise.

Mr. Brady has done much of his work in sorting through the puzzle of tax policy at night, out of a Washington townhouse he shares with three other Republicans, including Mr. Scalise. His lives in the Woodlands, Texas, which he returns to on weekends.

At his shared D.C. quarters, Mr. Brady usually sits on a duct-taped leather armchair in the living room with a baseball game on in the background, papers in his hands, and eating a low-budget meal.

"It's popcorn, some beer or wine, cheese packets you get at the airport and maybe hot dogs," Mr. Brady said. "This is not Bobby Flay's kitchen."

He has spent the past year watching his ideas get whittled down. Mr. Brady was the chief author of the House Republicans' 2016 tax blueprint, centered on the idea of "border adjustment," which would have taxed imports and exempted imports. He had to give up on the idea after retailers mounted a monthslong lobbying campaign against it.

When Mr. Brady was 12 years old, his father, a lawyer, was shot and killed during a trial in South Dakota. The second of five children, he was raised by his mother. He moved to Texas, and won election to the state legislature, running some local chambers of commerce along the way.

Mr. Brady was elected to Congress in 1996, making him part of an old guard that rose slowly through the ranks. He has a reputation for being a pragmatist and a team player.

"There are more than 300 million Americans and you can pick out 24 of the most famous and wealthiest and most influential but only a majority on this committee have the power to begin tax reform," he said. "After 31 years, we're going to exercise it," he said referring to the last big overhaul of the tax code in 1986.

Write to Siobhan Hughes at siobhan.hughes@wsj.com and Richard Rubin at richard.rubin@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

October 30, 2017 17:31 ET (21:31 GMT)