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  • Mike Martinez

Public Service Exemplars: "A Finer Spirit of Hope and Achievement": Alice Rivlin

Dr. Alice Rivlin is remembered as an economist and expert on the federal budget, serving in a variety of influential positions within executive branch agencies during a long and distinguished public service career. As she assumed increasingly responsible positions— founding member of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), director of the Office of Management & Budget (OMB) during the Clinton administration, and vice chair of the Federal Reserve—Dr. Rivlin was a pioneer, the first woman to hold these posts. When she stepped outside of government service, she worked at the Brookings Institution and as a visiting professor in the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University. She was renowned as a “policy wonk” extraordinaire. I discuss Dr. Rivlin in my forthcoming book, Public Service Exemplars: “A Finer Spirit of Hope and Achievement.”

Georgianna Alice Mitchell was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on March 4, 1931. She hailed from an accomplished family. Her grandfather, Samuel Alfred Mitchell, was a prominent astronomer. Her father, Allan G. C. Mitchell, was a professor and head of the physics department at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, for many years.

She grew up in Bloomington while her father taught at the university. Rivlin initially attended high school in Indiana before transferring to the prestigious Madeira School, a private college preparatory school for women in McLean, Virginia. Following high school, she attended Bryn Mawr College, one of the Seven Sister colleges, a series of prestigious U.S. women’s institutions of higher learning. Although she intended to major in history, she changed her major to economics when she enrolled in an economics course and discovered a passion for the subject.

After graduation, she moved to Europe, where she worked on implementing the Marshall Plan to rebuild war-torn nations struggling to recover from the Second World War II. Afterward, she returned to the United States to complete her graduate education. In 1958, she earned a Ph.D. in economics from Radcliffe College. Five years later, Radcliffe merged with Harvard University. Originally, she contemplated pursuing a public administration degree, but Harvard rejected her candidacy, fearful that a woman of marriageable age was a “poor risk.”

In 1955, Alice Mitchell married a Justice Department attorney, Lewis Allen Rivlin. The couple had three children. They divorced in 1977, but she kept his surname because it was part of her professional identity. In 1989, Rivlin remarried, this time to Sidney G. Winter, a prominent intellectual known for his work in evolutionary economics.

In 1957, Dr. Rivlin joined the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that conducts research and education in the social sciences, including foreign policy, global economics, and economic development. During her long career, she moved in and out of Brookings as she left to perform public service before returning to the think tank.

Rivlin served during the waning days of the Johnson administration in what eventually became the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) within the United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW). Relying on her academic background, Rivlin advised the HEW secretary about the means for measuring and evaluating the agency’s policies.

Following her stint at HEW, Rivlin returned to the Brookings Institution. She wrote a book, Systematic Thinking for Social Action, after she spoke to students at the University of California-Berkeley in January 1970. It became a classic text published by the Brookings Press. As outlined in the book, Rivlin was a proponent of systematic analysis of government programs, which was a relatively new approach to public service in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In the book, she discussed the need for rational discourse and systematic analysis in government program evaluation, a process she deemed a “quiet revolution in government.” In Rivlin’s view, judging the efficacy of government programs was virtually impossible without consulting data on program goals, performance, and expectations. Her vision reflected subsequent views of program evaluation in the public sector.

By 1975, she was ready to enter public service again. This time, she became the first director of a new agency, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). The CBO was created by Title II of the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 (Pub. L. 93-344), which President Richard M. Nixon signed into law on July 12, 1974. The agency opened its doors on February 24, 1975, with Dr. Rivlin at the helm.

CBO’s origins stemmed from a dispute between President Nixon, a Republican, and the Democratically controlled Congress. Under the United States Constitution, Congress controls the purse strings, but the president had attempted to impound, or prevent appropriated funds from being allocated. The CBO was designed, in the words of one journalist, “within the legislative branch to bolster Congress’s budgetary understanding and ability to act. Lawmakers’ aim was both technical and political: Generate a source of budgetary expertise to aid in writing annual budgets and lessen the legislature’s reliance on the president's Office of Management and Budget.”

In short, if the legislative branch hoped to match the executive branch’s budgetary expertise within OMB, Congress needed its own agency staffed with professions trained in finance and economics. The effort succeeded beyond initial expectations. A 2015 Brookings Institution report argued that the CBO had supplanted OMB as the “authoritative source of information on the economy and the budget in the eyes of Congress, the press, and the public.”

Dr. Rivlin stayed the CBO helm until 1983. As the leader of a newly established organization, she vociferously defended the agency’s independence, especially when partisans attempted to smear the agency in the heat of political battles. She insisted that maintaining an agency of politically neutral congressional budget experts served everyone’s interests, regardless of party. During her tenure, Rivlin scrupulously sought to forge bipartisan consensus on economic issues whenever possible.

She returned to the Brookings Institution in 1983 to become director of the think tank’s economic studies program. Later that year, she received a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” recognizing her efforts to bridge the gap between academic studies and federal economic policies. She remained at Brookings until the 1990s, when she joined the Clinton administration.

Dr. Rivlin’s reputation as a straight shooter who attempted to develop politically neutral policies preceded her. Under siege as partisanship became more heightened than ever, the Clinton administration recruited Rivlin to join OMB. In 1993 and 1994, she served as deputy director of the agency. When her predecessor, Leon Panetta, left in 1994 to become the White House chief of staff, Dr. Rivlin stepped into the top job at OMB. She stayed in that position until 1996, when she was appointed vice chair of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors. She remained at the Federal Reserve until 1999.

Owing to her expertise in finance, Dr. Rivlin was in great demand. In 1998, President Clinton appointed her the chair of the District of Columbia Financial Control Board. (The board’s official designation was the District of Columbia Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority.) As the only American city not situated inside a state, the District was overseen by the federal government. The city was suffering through a long-time series of financial crises, and the Financial Control Board was tasked with providing options for resolving those problems. Rivlin was an inspired choice to serve as the chair. While she worked at the Brookings Institution, the mayor of Washington, D.C., had appointed her to serve on the Commission on Budget and Financial Priorities, a blue-ribbon panel that recommended systemic changes to the city’s financial structure. She chaired the Financial Control Board until 2001.

As her resume grew longer, Dr. Rivlin was called to serve on numerous councils, boards, and panels, especially for professional associations. She eventually became president of the American Economic Association. She spent a decade working in the private sector before again entering government service in the Obama administration.

In 2010, the president appointed her to the Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, popularly known as the Simpson-Bowles Commission after former senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming and former White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles. Later, she co-chaired the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Task Force in Debt Reduction with former United States senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico.

Dr. Rivlin received numerous awards throughout her career. In 2008, she won three prestigious awards. The National Association of Business Economics awarded her the Paul A. Volcker Lifetime Achievement Award for Economic Policy. The American Academy of Political and Social Science awarded her the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Prize, which recognizes “social scientists, public officials, and civic leaders who champion the use of informed judgment to advance the public good.” The Council for Excellence in Government named her one of the greatest public servants of the last 25 years. In 2013, the National Academy of Social Insurance presented her with the Robert M. Ball Award. Three years later, she received the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research prize. At various times, Dr. Rivlin taught at prestigious universities, including Harvard, Georgetown, George Mason, and the New School.

As a woman working in a predominantly male profession, Dr. Rivlin was always a trailblazer, and her efforts won widespread recognition. She received the 1987 Golden Plate Award from the American Academy of Achievement. In 1998, she earned the first Carolyn Bell Shaw Award sponsored by the American Economic Association to recognize the achievements of women in economics. In 2019, she became a posthumous member of the Government Hall of Fame.

Dr. Rivlin died on May 14, 2019, in Washington, D.C. She was 88 years old. As friends and former colleagues shared their remembrances, she was celebrated as the consummate professional policy wonk who prized professional and technical competence over partisan politics.

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