By Stephen Neukam, The Texas Tribune
“U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady leaves Washington after 26 years of placing policymaking over headline-making” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
WASHINGTON — Republican U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, of The Woodlands, has seen his party transform itself time and again over his 26 years serving in Congress.
Brady was elected in 1996, the same year President Bill Clinton was reelected. Republicans had taken over the House and Senate in the 1994 midterm elections, and under Speaker Newt Gingrich, bipartisanship was beginning to erode. Now, Brady, 67, is preparing to retire at the beginning of January with Congress more polarized than ever, and with his party at a crossroads as it considers whether to follow former President Donald Trump into another election cycle.
Brady’s impending exit from the national political stage means Texas is losing one of its most senior and powerful lawmakers in Washington, D.C. — one who has enjoyed a coveted leadership role on the Ways and Means committee, which sets tax policy. Brady leaves having been involved in some of his party’s landmark achievements over the past two decades and he takes with him from Capitol Hill a vanishing skill set — a willingness to negotiate in good faith with those across the aisles in pursuit of passing legislation.
“I am convinced that there’s a middle class in Congress like there is in the rest of America,” Brady said in an interview last month with The Texas Tribune. “You don’t know them because they don’t say outrageous things. They’re serious, they’re diligent, they’re trying to do the right thing.”
Nationally, Brady keeps a lower profile than many of Texas’ other firebrands who are apt to start fights on social media and who are regulars on cable news. But in Congress he is regarded by his peers, even some Democrats, as a serious statesman who is more concerned about getting work done than he is about getting a headline.
“He’s irreplaceable. He has done more for our country than just about any representative that I’ve served with,” said U.S. Rep. August Pfluger, R-San Angelo, who also complimented his temperament. “You’ll never hear him criticize another member of Congress. … Certainly in our Texas delegation, some people need to hear that.”
Despite an occasional willingness to work with Democrats, Brady is a loyal Republican foot soldier, who has rarely strayed from the majority. He voted in line with Trump nearly 97% of the time and has voted with Biden’s position just under 13% of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight.
Brady both defends and applauds Trump’s presidency and influence on the party while carefully condemning the extremism propelled by those who are most loyal to the former president.
Social media is the biggest contributor to the incivility in government, he said, without directly calling out who he considers to be the worst offenders.
“Social media has been a challenge,” said Brady, whose own Twitter and Facebook feeds mostly echo the Republican Party line. “It’s so unfiltered. It goes so ugly, so fast. It tends to divide in big ways.”
But Brady stopped short of directing that criticism toward Trump, who was banned from Twitter for his role in inciting the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. (Trump’s account was recently restored by Elon Musk.)
Brady twice voted against impeaching Trump in the House and has credited him for paving the way for one of his own crowning achievements in office: the 2017 GOP-led overhaul of the tax code that significantly cut the corporate tax rate and reduced income taxes for most Americans.
“I think the policies (Trump) pushed for are still very much the mainstream Republican policies,” Brady said. “I think the difference is he put such a big emphasis on the working man and woman.”
He said Trump “almost single-handedly moved our party’s focus to … working families.”
But he pointed out the insurrection as an example of political violence, which he said needs to stop, and said divisiveness is at a “record high.”
“It was despicable. There was no excuse for it,” Brady said of the insurrection in an interview with KPRC in Houston in September. “I want everyone involved in that held responsible, period. But that isn’t the Republican party.”
Speaking to the Tribune, Brady did not offer an endorsement of the former president.
“Based on his policies, he will be a formidable opponent in the GOP primaries,” Brady said. But he said a candidate who appeals to independent and suburban voters, as well as people of color, will have the best shot of winning the White House for the GOP. Along those lines, Brady offered — without prompting — that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis appears to be an “attractive candidate,” should he jump into the race.
He declined to comment on Trump’s recent call for the Constitution to be terminated, as other Republicans including Texas Sen. John Cornyn and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have denounced the remark.
Despite his concerns about the toxicity of the political environment, Brady says he’s leaving office with optimism about the future because he holds a steadfast belief that American voters will turn the tide.
“I’m hopeful at some point … that the public will reward the candidates who are more willing to unify, more optimistic about where we go as a country,” Brady said. “I think voters will do that. So, no, I’m not worried about divisiveness increasing.”
Road to Congress
Brady was born in Vermillion, a small town in the southeast of South Dakota, in 1955. When he was 12 years old, his father, a lawyer, was killed in a courtroom shooting in Rapid City. Brady’s mother, in her 30s, was left to raise five children on her own.
“The four lessons she instilled into all of us was to be independent, to be optimistic, have faith in God and give back to the community where you live,” Brady said.
Brady declined to talk about the death of his father or whether that had any impact on his views on gun policy, saying it was “life-changing for our family.”
“The only time I really do is when I talk to young people,” Brady said. “A lot of families have challenges, and they’re not sure they can overcome it. And I use that example.”
He has remained a reliable pro-gun-rights vote throughout most of his career. But his view evolved from his time as a state lawmaker, when he was one of two Republicans in the Texas Legislature to vote against a bill that allowed citizens to carry concealed firearms. He told the Houston Chronicle after the 1995 vote that he “couldn’t look Mom in the eye and vote for this.”
But he told the National Journal in 2013 that he regrets his vote against the bill in Texas, which became law.
“But I’ve been remarkably impressed with how well concealed-carry has worked in Texas,” Brady told the National Journal 18 years after he voted against it. “It has worked better than its strongest supporters believed it would.”
In 2022, after the elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Brady joined 193 Republicans in voting against the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which passed Congress and became the first major gun legislation to be made law since 1994. Cornyn was the lead sponsor of the bill, which included increased funding for the enforcement of so-called red flag laws, an enhanced background check process for gun buyers between 18 and 21, plus a $1 billion investment in mental health programs at the federal and state levels.
Brady got a degree in mass communications from the University of South Dakota and went on to work for the Rapid City-area Chamber of Commerce, a role he said was formative in his political career.
“It was such a great fit because you were working with community leaders to build the community,” Brady said.
He found his way to Texas in 1982, when he left South Dakota for a job at the Beaumont Chamber of Commerce. He was elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 1990, representing The Woodlands and parts of the Houston area.
There was a gravitational pull toward politics in his family. He said his father was politically active with the Democratic Party. His uncle was a Democratic state senator in South Dakota.
“We were always involved in those things,” Brady said. “Not an expectation of being in politics at all, just part of being involved in the community.”
Despite growing up with Democratic influences, Brady told the Sentinel Colorado in 2015 that he became a Republican while working in his chamber of commerce roles, where he said he realized the burden that government places on job creators.
When Republican U.S. Rep. Jack Fields retired in 1996, Brady ran for the GOP nomination in the 8th District and ultimately won the seat in a runoff general election with 59% of the vote.
Across the aisle
As the top Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, Brady has amassed a laundry list of legislative accomplishments, spanning four presidential administrations. In 2015, Brady was elected as chair of the committee after former U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., left to serve as speaker. Brady led the committee until 2019, when the House flipped to Democratic control, and has been the ranking member since.
Brady has introduced 12 bills and co-sponsored 172 bills that have become law in his time in Congress.
Among his legislative achievements: Brady was one of the lead negotiators in a 2015 effort to lift a 40-year ban on crude oil exports from the U.S.; he was the White House’s point man for the Central American Free Trade Agreement under President George W. Bush; he was one of the leading proponents of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, a Trump-era replacement of the North American Free Trade Agreement; and he introduced the 2019 Internal Revenue Service Reforms and the 2019 SECURE Act, a law that reformed the country’s retirement system.
What sticks out to Brady about these accomplishments, he said, is that it took bipartisan relationships to get them through Congress.
U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., who currently chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, said Brady was a consistent lawmaker even as the pendulum of power swung back and forth from Democrats to Republicans.
“Kevin Brady during the Trump years was Kevin Brady during the Biden years,” Neal said. “I trusted him. If he said he could do something, he would do it. If he couldn’t do something, he was upfront about it.”
As Republicans pushed to overhaul the tax code in 2017, the first major legislative win of the Trump presidency which amounted to a $1.5 trillion tax cut, Neal recalled that Brady allowed for concessions requested by Democrats who generally opposed the legislation. Neal was lobbying his GOP counterparts on the committee to preserve tax credits — the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit and New Markets Tax Credit, aimed at helping increase housing opportunities for poor people — that were in danger of being stripped. Brady initially told Neal the tax credits had to go because they were too expensive, but ultimately he allowed them to be included in the final language of the bill. The bill passed the Senate and the House along party lines, garnering no support from Democrats.
Brady said he kept the tax credits because they reflected “bipartisan priorities in the House and Senate.” He noted that politics in recent years rewards those who refuse compromise.
“I think it’s been easier to be more partisan than trying to find common ground,” Brady said. “In some ways you are punished if you try to work to find common ground.”
Indeed, Brady has faced criticism in his party for his willingness to work with Democrats. In 2016, Brady faced his most contentious primary against state Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, who blasted Brady for his supposed cooperation with the Obama administration agenda.
Toth criticized Brady for voting for a 2015 spending bill that supported both Democratic and Republican priorities and cleared the House with 150 GOP lawmakers in support.
“Kevin Brady just signed this omnibus [spending bill], which just added $850 billion, nearly $1 trillion of debt, onto the next generation,” Toth said at the time.
Brady narrowly survived that contest with 53% of the vote.
Today, Toth said he has tremendous respect for the 13-term congressman.
“He’s a professional. He shows a level of kindness toward people that agree and disagree with him,” Toth said. “He’s a great guy. I think the world of him.”
U.S. Rep. Beth Van Duyne, R-Irving, said Brady is widely respected and trusted among his peers in Congress.
When Van Duyne worked in the Trump administration under former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, she said she worked with Brady in the wake of Hurricane Harvey hitting the Houston area in 2017.
“Brady was really involved in that,” Van Duyne said. “I got to work with him … as someone who is interested in policy issues in Texas and making sure that area could recover.”
As new members join the Congressional delegation for Texas — like Pfluger and Van Duyne, who started their House careers in 2021 — Brady said he isn’t worried about the state’s influence weakening in the chamber, as he leaves alongside longtime lawmakers like U.S. Reps. Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler, and Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas. Instead, he is excited for where the delegation is headed.
“We’re reloading as a state,” Brady said. “We’ve had big (freshman) classes, hugely talented. We’ve moved them onto the committees that matter for our state. … I’m not worried at all.”
As for his own plans, Brady said he is unsure of what he’ll do professionally post-Congress.
He said he wants to spend time back home in Texas with his wife and two sons. But he also said he could see himself in the “economic, tax, trade, health care stuff, which I like.”
“I’m ready for a new adventure,” Brady said. “I don’t know what it will be.”
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/12/09/kevin-brady-congress-texas-retires/.
The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.