Alice M. Rivlin, an economist, budget and health care expert respected on both sides of the aisle and the first director of the Congressional Budget Office, died Tuesday at the age of 88 after a battle with cancer.
The Brookings Institution, where she served as a senior fellow, confirmed Rivlin’s death.
After a late 1960s stint at what was then known as the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, Rivlin served as founding director of the CBO after the agency was created under the 1974 law establishing the modern budget process. Rivlin filled that role through most of 1983 and still holds the record for longest-serving CBO director.
Rivlin 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 created by Congress in 1995 to pull the District out of a financial crisis.
Former Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad lauded Rivlin as a “giant in the budget world,” someone who was “at the top” among budget scholars, and “an American original.”
“Everyone likes Alice Rivlin because everyone understands that she is speaking from a deep background of knowledge and experience,” the North Dakota Democrat said. “And most of all, she had no axe to grind, she had no personal agenda, she was not ever trying to advance herself, she was trying to advance America.”
A centrist Democrat, Rivlin was an independent thinker who defied political categorization.
She defended President Barack Obama’s signature 2010 health care overhaul, legislation that was anathema to Republicans. Meanwhile, she collaborated with Wisconsin Republican Paul D. Ryan on a health care plan that proposed restructuring Medicare and Medicaid and drew howls from many Democrats.
Ryan, the former House speaker who retired last year, said in an interview that when he was writing his own Medicare overhaul plan, Rivlin was very influential “and she convinced me to a number of design changes to her way of thinking on how it should be modeled.”
“I adored, respected, admired Alice Rivlin,” Ryan said, adding he affectionately called her “mom.” Ryan praised Rivlin not only for her intellect and genuineness but for “her very warm and generous personality.”
“She blazed her own trail in so many areas, especially in budgets, health care and education,” he said, calling her “an out-of-the-box thinker.”
While Rivlin and many others have derided what they view as a “broken” congressional budget process, Rivlin credited the 1974 law as a game changer for policymakers wrestling with deficits and debt — particularly having an independent “scorekeeper” at the CBO.
“I think it’s made the Congress and the executive branch very much more conscious of the cost of new legislation,” Rivlin told CQ Roll Call in 2014. “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.”
The Harvard-trained economist continued to play an active and influential role as a public servant long after concluding her most prominent jobs.
In 2010, a decade after her service on the D.C. Control Board, 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.
She served during the same period as co-chair, with former GOP Sen. Pete V. Domenici, of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Task Force on Debt Reduction. Domenici died in 2017.
Speaking at a Senate Budget Committee hearing Tuesday on efforts to overhaul the budget process, Democrat Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, praised Rivlin’s dedication to the subject.
“She was someone who always walked the walk when it came to budget issues,” Van Hollen said. “I think we’re all going to miss her, but maybe we can carry on in her spirit.”
Rivlin spent much of the past six decades, including recent years, at the Brookings Institution, which she joined as a research fellow in 1957. Promotions to senior staff economist and senior fellow were not far behind.
The author or editor of some two dozen books on subjects ranging from fiscal issues and health care to education and the internet, Rivlin was the recipient of numerous honorary degrees and awards, including the Paul A. Volcker Lifetime Achievement Award for Economic Policy.
A visiting professor at various times, Rivlin taught at the John F. Kennedy School at Harvard, George Mason University, the New School University and Georgetown.
Rivlin grew up in Bloomington, Indiana. She earned a B.A. in economics from Bryn Mawr College, and a master’s and Ph.D. in economics from Radcliffe College at Harvard University.