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Brookings Institution History

In 2016, the Brookings Institution celebrated its 100th year as a leader in policy research at the local, national and global levels. Learn more about our activities during our centenary year, see a timeline of our milestones over the last century, and read stories about the impact of Brookings experts on domestic and international policy.

The Brookings Institution traces its beginnings to 1916, when a group of leading reformers founded the Institute for Government Research (IGR), the first private organization devoted to analyzing public policy issues at the national level.

A Commitment to Effective Government

In 1916, Robert S. Brookings worked with other government reformers to create the first private organization devoted to the fact-based study of national public policy issues. The new Institute for Government Research became the chief advocate for effective and efficient public service and sought to bring science to the study of government.

Brookings created two sister organizations: the Institute of Economics in 1922 and a graduate school in 1924. In 1927, the institutes and the school merged to form the present-day Brookings Institution, with the mission to promote, conduct and foster research “in the broad fields of economics, government administration and the political and social sciences.”

The Brookings trustees chose the organization’s first president: Harold Moulton, a University of Chicago professor who was known for his study of war debts. Brookings economists played a large role in crafting the 1921 legislation that created the first U.S. Bureau of the Budget. President Warren G. Harding called the bureau, which planned the government’s financial outlays, “the greatest reform in governmental practices since the beginning of the republic.”

War and Peace

In the World War II era, Brookings experts helped the government mobilize for the conflict and manage its aftermath. Leo Pasvolsky, a Brookings expert who also served in the State Department, was instrumental in refining the blueprint for President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s dream of the United Nations and helped shape the Marshall Plan. In 1948, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Arthur Vandenberg (R-MI), praised Brookings for a report that would become “the Congressional ‘work-sheet’ in respect to this complex and critical problem.” (Learn more about Brookings’s role in the Marshall Plan »)

Shaping the Nation

Nearly a year before the 1960 election, Brookings governmental studies expert Laurin Henry published Presidential Transitions, designed to help the winning candidate—John F. Kennedy or Richard M. Nixon—launch his administration smoothly. The book was followed by a series of confidential issues papers prepared by Brookings experts.

On September 29, 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson helped mark Brookings’s fiftieth anniversary with an address on public service and the importance of America’s cities. (Learn more about LBJ’s address »)

Brookings also had a cameo role in the Watergate saga. President Nixon reportedly told aides to rifle through the office of Brookings fellow Leslie Gelb, who had been a Department of Defense analyst with Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the “Pentagon Papers” to the New York Times and the Washington Post. One version of events says the break-in was foiled when a Brookings security guard, Roderick Warrick, stopped two men with attaché cases who were trying to sneak into the building on a summer evening in 1971.

That same year, Brookings began a new series of studies on the federal budget, providing in-depth analysis of various programs that helped inform the public and sharpen the spending choices for Congress. Three years later, Brookings pushed for the creation of the Congressional Budget Office. Alice Rivlin, a distinguished Brookings economist, was the CBO’s first director. She continued to move back and forth between Brookings and the government in the years that followed.

Economic Growth

Joseph Pechman, director of the Economic Studies program at Brookings, pushed hard for comprehensive reform of the U.S. tax code in the early 1980s. His research led to the Tax Reform Act of 1986—a major bill that had a profound impact on the U.S. economy.

In the 1990s, the federal government devolved many of its social programs back to cities and states, and Brookings shaped a new generation of urban policies to help build strong neighborhoods, cities and metropolitan regions. As President Bill Clinton prepared to sign historic welfare reform legislation, Ron Haskins, a former Republican congressional staffer, and Isabel Sawhill, a former official in the Office of Management and Budget for President Clinton, teamed up at Brookings to study the nation’s policies on children and families. In 2001, a proposal by Sawhill and researcher Adam Thomas for a child tax credit became part of major tax legislation.

The ongoing effort to improve the tax system also benefited from the work by Brookings economists Bill Gale, Mark Iwry and Peter Orszag. The scholars made the case that helping Americans save for retirement requires financial incentives for low- and middle-income workers coupled with new corporate practices to make saving easier. The legislation they inspired helped make them three of the most-quoted, and most influential, economists in the United States.

A Global Challenge

The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, increased the urgency of developing strategies to address the threat while sustaining America’s role as a force for prosperity and stability abroad and an open society at home. With remarkable speed, Brookings experts produced influential proposals for homeland security and intelligence operations. They also testified before Congress and used the Institution’s outreach capacity, including its in-house television studio, to explain the new global reality to a frightened public.

Governance and Renewal

Confronted with “the Great Recession” of 2008–09, Brookings scholars probed its causes and consequences, shaping debate with a steady stream of analysis and recommendations. When the converging effects of climate change, weapons proliferation, weak and failing states, and other multidimensional issues of our time demanded complex remedies, teams of experts responded quickly with high-profile events and Institution-wide strategies.

Brookings Presidents

Amy Liu, interim (2022 – )
John R. Allen (2017 – 2022)
Strobe Talbott (2002 – 2017)
Michael Armacost (1995 – 2002)
Bruce MacLaury (1977 – 1995)
Gilbert Y. Steiner, acting (1976 – 1977)
Kermit Gordon (1967 – 1976)
Robert Calkins (1952 – 1967)
Harold Moulton (1927 – 1952)

highlights from brookings  history

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