Tom Grumbly began his career in Washington at the White House Office of Management and Budget and went on to hold key roles in the federal government, including under Secretary of Energy in the Clinton Administration. Until recently, he was the Vice President for Civil Government Programs at Lockheed Martin. Tom is now the President of Supporters of Agricultural Research (SoAR), a non-partisan coalition of scientific, consumer and producer groups advocating for sound agricultural research policies. He spoke with Policy Notes about his extensive experience in DC and why he is still hopeful about what government can do.
You came to DC in the early 70s. That must have been a fascinating time to launch a career in the federal government.
It’s hard to convey — if you aren’t of a certain age and weren’t here — what an unusual time it was in the American government. President Nixon had just resigned. Things were so unbelievable, so jarring. We wondered if we would wake up and see tanks in the streets. When that passed and President Ford came in, many smart people came to work in and with the government. They wanted to try and help stabilize things.
You started at the OMB doing ag research?
Yes. My GSPP internship involved an analysis of the twelve California field stations that were a part of UC Berkeley’s agricultural research organization. That led to a job at the OMB working on R&D policy.
Back then, the OMB was a kind of second graduate school for young professionals. I was able to meet an enormous number of senior people in government and the private sector and watch policy-making happen at a very high level. I was twenty-four years old when I sat in on a meeting with the President of the United States. I became very interested in the political side of things and went on to an appointment in the Carter administration.
The Goldman School prepared me incredibly well to see the intersection of policy analysis and politics. That’s been my trade ever since.
People often comment on how polarized Washington is. Can government still get things done?
I’m a practical idealist. I still very strongly believe the government has an important role in the 21st century as we integrate into the rest of the world. I believe you can come here and make things happen.
Having said that, Washington is back to the extremely partisan politics that characterized the early 19th and 20th centuries. It’s disappointing and infuriating when people make up facts to bolster their ideas or present ideas as if they’re facts. This has certainly not been the first time in our country’s history that things have been that way, but it may be more dangerous now because we live in a world where what anyone says is instantly available to everyone else.
The good news is, with the demographic shifts happening in our nation, the status quo cannot remain. The millennial generation is much more open to the complexity of human relations and willing to accept other people at face value. And economics will force us to be more integrated with the rest of the world.
In the meantime, how can anything in Washington get done?
It’s important to take advantage of the interceses in politics, the places where we can find agreement. Infrastructure is one example. I’m doing R&D policy, in part, because it is an area where there aren’t huge ideological differences. Both the tea party and the left wing can agree that R&D is a good thing.
What advice would you have for GSPP alumni who want to work in Washington?
Network, network, network. Everything here is about relationships. If you have a smart idea and the relationships to back it up, the idea can spread relatively quickly.
Don’t get caught up by the glitz of the place. If you really want to be involved in the political process, sure, sign on for a partisan job and have fun. But remember that politics in DC are a caricature of real life. Focus on the ideas you want to advance. And don’t lie. Remember that the only way to goodness is through the truth.