Rep. Kevin Brady (center) has made trade central to his career. The issue is back on the map with three trade bills moving to the floor.
In a political age that rewards "red meat" on cable television, talk radio and Internet echo chambers, Rep. Kevin Brady is following another model.
Since Texas voters first sent the Republican to Congress in 1996, he's built expertise on a specialized issue — trade — working diligently behind the scenes to sell free trade to fellow lawmakers, administration officials and the public.
"There's an awful lot being written about how Washington can't work. And Kevin Brady is a real story of Washington at work, and he makes it work," said Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank and former U.S. trade representative during the administration of President George W. Bush.
With three key free-trade agreements teed up for action this week, Brady's keystone issue is on display. Last week, President Barack Obama sent trade agreements with Colombia, South Korea and Panama to Capitol Hill. It has been a years-long process, dating back to the Bush administration, which first negotiated and signed the deals.
"It's hard to imagine these free-trade agreements moving forward without his leadership in the House," said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who worked alongside Brady for 14 years in the House.
Brady, from his position as chairman of the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Trade, has a reputation for how ceaselessly he pushes free trade.
"I love trade. I love trade. First, it's economic freedom. It's the freedom to buy, sell and compete with as little government interference as possible," Brady said in an interview from his office in the Cannon House Office Building. "Secondly, it's a jobs issue."
Brady's sunny disposition and sense of fairness are important to his success at reaching across the aisle for support, something crucial for effectiveness on building bipartisan coalitions on trade.
"He's conservative as hell. But the politics aside, he's a very nice guy. And the politics doesn't get in the way of your being a friend with him. I have nothing but good things to say about Kevin," said Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), the subcommittee ranking member.
The two make an unlikely pair, given how many political differences they have. But Brady and McDermott will travel together to a trade summit in Hawaii next month to represent Congress. "His word is good. That's the highest compliment I pay anybody," McDermott said.
In tense negotiations, Brady often breaks the ice with humor, including his impression of legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi.
"When others give up on something — it's kind of why he goes to that Vince Lombardi [impression] — he never gives up," House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said. "He has the vision to figure out how to get to the end, how to solve the problem, when others get clouded by obstacles."
For trade, one of the "down times" came at the beginning of Obama's presidency, when the administration was slow to articulate its trade agenda, according to Brady.
"At the outset it looked like [U.S. Trade Representative] Ron Kirk had the loneliest job in the administration," he said.
Brady cited lobbying from foreign leaders as what prodded Obama to take on the issue. As the president "traveled around the world and realized that while he had an agenda, these other countries wanted to talk trade," he said.
In the weeks leading up to an Obama trip to South Korea in November of last year — at which many were pushing Obama to finalize South Korea free-trade agreement deliberations — several interests banded together to put forward the best negotiating stance, including the leaders of the House Ways and Means Committee, Michigan Reps. Dave Camp (R) and Sander Levin (D).
"You had Sandy Levin, autoworkers, auto companies, Dave Camp, the White House, all trying to reach the absolute best negotiating point for us," Brady said.
But the talks failed, and Brady saw that as a turning point for the administration. "It seemed to me from that point on that the administration was absolutely determined to finish that agreement," Brady said.
There were big fights still ahead, including a major impasse over Trade Adjustment Assistance. But last week's action by the administration, as well as preparations in both the House and Senate to move the deals to the floor, are significant enough that trade advocates are saying the issue is back on the map.
Brady was focused on trade from early on in his Congressional career. In 2000, he approached Zoellick, then a part of Bush's presidential campaign, to talk trade.
Zoellick later appointed Brady co-chairman of the push for the Central America Free Trade Agreement. "The idea was to expose them to the trade negotiation from soup to nuts," Zoellick said.
In terms of his behind-the-scenes style, Brady counts former Rep. Bill Archer (R-Texas) as a mentor, recalling how the former Ways and Means chairman would field questions on tax policy from freshman lawmakers, explaining the legislative history of portions of the byzantine tax code.
Brady, 56, grew up in Rapid City, S.D., and his childhood was marred by tragedy.
"My dad ... was an attorney — had taken on a tough case for the local church to get an elderly woman out of a bad, bad marriage. Unfortunately, her husband threatened Dad, threatened our family. And when the trial started, [he] stood up in the court room and shot, killed, my father, his wife, shot the judge, who survived. Now this was in 1967 in a small town. Things like that didn't happen back then," Brady said.
Brady's mother kept her kids busy.
"I mean, scouts, church, school, sports. I think her thinking was if she could tire us out. ..." Brady said. "That really shaped me. She taught us to be independent, give back to the community."
Brady said he doesn't mind his colleagues in the House that raise their profiles on cable news, rather than by heavy lifting on legislation. "We don't have all quarterbacks or all linemen or all fast wide receivers. Everyone's got a different role."