When Hurricane Katrina made landfall in 2005, its impact was felt from the Gulf Coast all the way to the halls of government in Washington, D.C. Among its many ripple effects, Katrina marked a turning point in our nation’s approach to emergency management. It also happened to mark a turning point in the career of Rob Strayer ’00.
In 2005 Strayer was an attorney at Washington law firm WilmerHale doing corporate investigations. He had given little thought to working in the public sector. But when the opportunity arose to take his skills to Capitol Hill and investigate the government’s response to Katrina as part of a Senate Congressional committee, he eagerly accepted the assignment. That meant working very quickly to get up to speed on the responsibilities and perspectives of all of the different parties involved.
“I had to understand all the policies and legal authorities in play between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the local levee boards and the Department of Homeland Security,” said Strayer, who today serves as legislative director and general counsel for Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee. “Through the Katrina investigation, I learned a lot about how the government should respond to both natural disasters and terrorist attacks.”
The investigation sparked Strayer’s interest in public service. Following the investigation, Strayer continued working for the Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, focusing on counterterrorism, for the next five years. Working on the Senate committee’s staff convinced him that he could do more on the Hill to affect government policy than anywhere else. “If you want to influence policy, it’s better to go to Congress,” he said. “You can do a lot more there than by working on a case-by-case basis as a lawyer.”
In 2012, Strayer left the Senate’s Homeland Security Committee to join Corker’s staff. His work now entails helping Corker achieve his strategic policy objectives. Many of the Tennessee senator’s current objectives pertain to fiscal reform, particularly of government-sponsored enterprises like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. “Senator Corker wants to achieve sound policy goals,” he said. “Working for him has been a great opportunity to do public service.”
Although Strayer is no longer on the same career path he started at Vanderbilt Law School, many lessons he learned as a law student apply in his job today. He points specifically to the administrative law course he took from Associate Dean Lisa Bressman, who holds a David Daniels Allen Distinguished Chair of Law.
“You can achieve policy outcomes by passing laws, but it’s very hard to do,” he said. “In Professor Bressman’s class, I learned that there are more intricate, nuanced ways of getting things done on the administrative side—and I still draw on those lessons today.”