Alice Rivlin, First Woman To Serve As Budget Director, Dies

May 14, 2019 by Dan McCue
(Photo courtesy the Brookings Institution)

Alice Rivlin, the economist and centrist Democrat who as the first director of the Congressional Budget Office taught lawmakers to be more conscious of the cost of new legislation, has died after a battle with cancer.

The Brookings Institution, where Rivlin served as a senior fellow, confirmed her death.

Her family told the Institution that she died early Tuesday morning at her home in Washington, D.C., surrounded by her family, including her husband Sidney G. Winter, her three children, Catherine, Allan and Douglas, their spouses and one of her four grandchildren.

Throughout her storied career in Washington, Rivlin held senior positions in three presidential administrations.

Rivlin was working in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, later renamed the Department of Health and Human Services, when she was tapped to be the founding director of the CBO in 1974.

But her securing the job wasn’t easy and was touched by a bit of serendipity.

As she recalled in a 2018 interview with the NPR podcast The Indicator, “the head of the House Budget Committee was actually rather sexist, and he’d been heard to say that over his dead body would a women have his job.”

Then the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Representative Wilbur Mills, D-Ark., drove into the tidal basin in the company of an exotic dancer named Fanne Fox. The scandal caused Mills to resign his chair on the committee, and the congressman who had been so opposed to her taking the top spot at the CBO was named Mills’ replacement, clearing Rivlin’s path.

“I owed my job to Fanne Foxe,” she told The Indicator.

Rivlin filled that role for 8 years, and still holds the record as the agency’s longest serving director.

She went on to become director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Bill Clinton, vice chair of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, and director of the District of Columbia Financial Control Board, the entity created by Congress in 1995 to pull the district through a fiscal crisis.

In 2010, Rivlin was appointed to Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform headed by former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson, a Republican, and onetime Clinton chief of staff Erskine Bowles, a Democrat.

Rivlin was among 11 members of the commission who voted in favor of the commission’s fiscal plan, which combined changes in entitlement programs, spending cuts and revenue increases to reduce the deficit by almost $4 trillion over a decade.

The vote fell short of the required 14 needed to advance the plan to Congress.

At the same time, she served as co-chair, with former Sen. Pete V. Domenici, R-N.M., of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Task Force on Debt Reduction.

But the Harvard-trained economist was known as much for her no-nonsense personality, as for high-level positions she filled.

“Alice Rivlin was renowned for her exceptional contributions to so many areas of public policy and her distinguished public service,” said Janet Yellen, Distinguished Fellow in Residence for Economic Studies and the Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy at Brookings.  “Alice had a hard head and a soft heart—a pragmatic approach to achieving fiscal sanity and assessing costs and benefits of policy alternatives, combined with deep concern about the impact of policy on people. To women in economics, including me, Alice was a mentor, a role model, and an inspiration.”

Once asked by Roll Call about the role the CBO played on Capitol Hill, Rivlin spoke at length about its importance as an independent “Scorekeeper” for Congress and the executive branch.

“That was the whole idea of scoring — that you had to know what something would cost before you could sensibly decide whether it was worth it,” she said.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said in a statement that Rivlin “worked her entire career to promote a more stable fiscal outlook for our country and greater economic opportunities for future generations of Americans” and said her loss “is a blow to our nation.”

“As the first Director of the Congressional Budget Office, Alice worked tirelessly to ensure that it would always be respected as a nonpartisan resource, providing Members and committees with expert analysis,” Hoyer said.  “Later appointed as the first woman to serve as director of the Office of Management and Budget by President Clinton, she advocated for fiscally responsible budgets that paved the way for the surpluses at the end of the 1990’s, when she served as Vice Chair of the Federal Reserve.  During the Obama Administration, Alice served on the National Commission for Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, striving to find bipartisan solutions to our nation’s fiscal challenges, a pursuit she had made a hallmark of her life of service.”

“Alice Rivlin will be remembered as one of the great public servants of her generation, who understood the importance of America being able to afford its investments over the long term so our people today and tomorrow can access the opportunities that make the American Dream possible,” he added.

Representative John Yarmuth, R-Ky., chairman of the House Budget Committee, called Rivlin “one of the foremost leaders of the budget world who had the respect and admiration of Democrats and Republicans alike.

“Her vision and leadership made the Congressional Budget Office into the vital resource it is today, and her contributions will continue to help frame our debates for years to come. Her passing is a huge loss to the budget community, and I send my deepest condolences to her family and loved ones,” Yarmuth said.

Rivlin spent much of the past six decades including recent years at the Brookings Institution, which she joined as a research fellow in 1957.

Rivlin grew up in Bloomington, Indiana, and earned her B.A. in economics from Bryn Mawr College, and a Master’s and Ph.D. in economics from Radcliffe College at Harvard University.

Over the years, she served as a visiting professor at the John F. Kennedy School at Harvard University, Georgetown University, and George Mason University, among other institutions

Rivlin was also the author or editor of dozens of books on public policy.

Up until hours before her death, she was working on a forthcoming Brookings book that will be a plea to the Congressional leaders of both parties to end the partisan warfare.

She wrote, “Stop focusing on winning the next election and using the Congressional rules to prevent votes on sensible solutions that are backed by a bipartisan majority and have broad public support, and get back to the business of working across party lines to make good public policy to solve problems for the American people. It does not have to be good natured; it is not so much that we need a change in the tone in Washington as it is that we need a change in the rules.”

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