“Hope for bipartisan policy on the economy or any other topic depends on stopping the blame game, beginning to listen to each other, and rebuilding trust before working together to solve the problems that beset us,” Alice Rivlin wrote in 2018, encapsulating one of her consistent tenets. As the Brookings Institution community mourns the death of this extraordinary scholar and public servant, we look back at some highlights of her extraordinary career at Brookings. Learn more about the scope and impact of her life and career in this memorial piece.
Rivlin first joined the Brookings staff as a research fellow in 1957, while she was pursuing her doctorate in economics at Radcliffe College. After earning her PhD in 1958, she joined the Institution as a staff economist in the Economic Studies Program, a position she held for the next eight years except for a stint on the U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations.
One of the earliest media mentions of Alice Rivlin’s scholarship came in November 1961. In her first book, The Role of the Federal Government in Financing Higher Education (Brookings, 1961), Rivlin made the case that the federal government should increase its support of higher education.
(Evening Star, November 13, 1961, p. 6)
Alice Rivlin would author or co-author at least three more books and numerous articles in the 1960s on issues like education, families and households, population growth and the economy, and the budget of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW). President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed her to the position of deputy assistant secretary of HEW in 1966, and she later served as assistant secretary for planning and evaluation in the agency.
Rivlin rejoined Brookings in 1969 as a senior fellow in Economic Studies and soon produced one of her most influential works, Systematic Thinking for Social Action (Brookings, 1971; reissued as a “Brookings Classic” in 2015). In an introduction to the updated edition, former Health and Human Services Secretary and now U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala described the book as “the most important book that I would read on public policy analysis.” She added:
Alice Rivlin’s brilliant and sustained contribution to public policy analysis through her book and her leadership at the Congressional Budget Office, the Office of Management and Budget, and Brookings got us to think systematically about public programs and their benefits. She also reminds us that when we refuse to use evidence in making public policy decisions, we do so at our country’s peril.
In 1972, Rivlin published an article in The Brookings Bulletin titled, “Why Can’t We Get Things Done?” in which she offered her own theory in response to the question. After discounting popular right-wing and left-wing “villain theories” (those in power don’t want to change) and contending with the idea that “the system” prevents change (powerlessness), Rivlin argued that:
The power and powerlessness theories are convenient, not only because they are both partly right, but also because they relieve the individual of the unpleasant job of problem solving. A much less convenient theory is offered here. It might be called the “conflicting objectives theory.” It holds simply that we are failing to solve social problems because we do not know how to do it—the problems are genuinely hard. The difficulties do not primarily involve conflicts among different groups of people, although these exist. Rather, current social problems are difficult because they involve conflicts among objectives that almost everyone holds. These conflicts create technical or design difficulties that override the political ones.
Her insights in this piece on the “design problems” in public policy persisted throughout her writing.
In that same year, Rivlin joined her fellow scholars in the publication of a series begun just the previous year—Setting National Priorities: The 1972 Budget. Along with scholars Charles Schultze, Edward Fried, and Nancy Teeters, she co-authored that and the next two editions.
Arnold Packer, a noted economist, observed in his review of the 1974 edition that it was “a good place to look” for “sanity and rationality” in the “midst of confusion of political instability, energy inadequacy, price inflation, and social incoherence.”
Alice Rivlin continued her prolific output of books and articles through 1975, and stopped only when she became the founding director of the new Congressional Budget Office that year. In a 2009 interview with a Bryn Mawr College publication (her undergraduate alma mater), Rivlin said of her time at the CBO:
I think the Congressional Budget Office plays a wonderful role, and I enjoyed playing it. It is crucial to have a group of well-qualified people estimating the cost and impact of legislation, and it should be nonpartisan and objective. I think we did quite a good job of getting it started in that direction, and it’s still performing this function.
Rivlin returned to Brookings in 1983 as the director of the Economic Studies Program, a position she held until 1987, when she resumed her role as a senior fellow. During this period, her publications focused on the budget process, federal deficits, taxes, health insurance, and caring for the disabled elderly. In 1987, she turned her attention overseas, co-editing with Brookings Senior Fellow Barry Bosworth a volume titled The Swedish Economy (Brookings). Not only was the study aimed at helping Swedes “see their economic situation in new ways,” as she wrote, but also offering an analysis “useful to Americans and others trying to grapple with the serious problems that have best advanced economies since the early 1970s,” including slowdowns in economic growth, energy price changes, changing demographics, and more.
In 1992, the Brookings Institution Press published Rivlin’s Reviving the American Dream: The Economy, the States, and the Federal Government. In the book, Rivlin argued for redistributing certain responsibilities between the federal and state governments so that the federal budget could move into surplus and state governments could act on a “productivity agenda.” Whether or not the specific policy prescriptions remain relevant today, her words then resonate now:
The American democratic system, although admired around the world, is not confronting the public problems that concern its citizens most. The federal government can lead an international coalition to victory in the Middle East, but appears far less decisive at home. The budget deficit has paralyzed policy for more than a decade. Neither major political party has a convincing domestic agenda; neither can articulate a clear view of what the federal government ought to do. …
The tone of domestic political discourse is as worrisome as its substance. Candidates impugn each other rather than proposing solutions. People elected to lead and govern point fingers at each other: the president blames Congress, and Congress blames the president. Politicians pay more attention to interest groups than to the public interest. Average citizens feel no one cares about them. Allegations of mismanagement and corruption fill the press. Cynics about government find much to be cynical about.
Rivlin explained her three “biases”: Optimism—“I believe that America’s current economic and political problems are serious but not insurmountable, and that we will find ways to solve them.” Pragmatism—“I am a fanatical, card-carrying middle-of-the-roader. … The recommendations [of this book] reflect both a strong belief in the efficacy of private markets and a conviction that public action is often necessary and constructive.” And third, that she was against “magic wands and painless solutions”—“If simple, painless solutions to public problems existed, they would have been found long ago.”
Newly-elected President Bill Clinton appointed Rivlin to be deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget starting in 1993, and she became its director in 1994, serving to the end of Clinton’s first term. As Clinton’s first inauguration approached, a Washington Post writer observed, referencing Reviving the American Dream, that “in an administration that promises to be full of new ideas, perhaps none of President-elect Clinton’s appointees so far comes with more ideas than Alice M. Rivlin.
After her service in the White House, Rivlin served as vice chair of the board of governors of the Federal Reserve, and then as chair of the D.C. Financial Assistance and Management Authority, a.k.a. the “Financial Control Board,” a congressionally-mandated agency tasked with steering the nation’s capital city back to fiscal solvency. She continued to produce analyses of important economic issues, such as long-term care, bank regulation, and taxes. Back at Brookings as co-director of the Brookings-Greater Washington Research Program, she co-authored with Robert Litan Beyond the Dot.coms: The Economic Promise of the Internet (Brookings, 2001).
In subsequent years, in her position as a senior fellow in Economic Studies and many other affiliations (co-chair with Sen. Pete Domenici of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Debt Reduction Task Force; member of the Simpson-Bowles Commission on the Federal Budget, appointed by President Barack Obama; and director of the Engelberg Center for Health Care Reform at Brookings), Alice Rivlin’s publications and congressional testimony focused on health care, the federal budget, fiscal policy, and issues affecting the Washington, D.C. region.
In 2004, Rivlin co-edited with Brookings Senior Fellow Isabel Sawhill a new volume, Restoring Fiscal Sanity: How to Balance the Budget (Brookings, 2004). “The budget challenge is daunting,” they wrote, “but not impossible to address. The United States is a wealthy, resourceful country that has solved plenty of tough problems before. In a democracy, it is important to identify alternative courses of action that might appeal to different groups and try to find a compromise that all can agree on.”
Rivlin, Sawhill, and contributing authors detailed three plans to balance the budget, and also called for improving the budget process itself with specific policy elements to “stiffen the resolve of politicians to do the right thing and provide political cover for resisting deficit-increasing actions.” (Read a policy brief by Rivlin and Sawhill in which they outlined their arguments and solutions.)
In 2005, Brookings published another “Restoring Fiscal Sanity” volume, also co-edited by Rivlin and Sawhill, that focused on reforms in the tax system, Social Security, and Medicare to put the nation’s finances on sounder footing. And in 2007, Rivlin joined AEI scholar Joseph Antos to co-edit a third volume in the fiscal sanity series that explored how to slow the growth of federal spending on health care.
In October 2016, during the waning days of the U.S. presidential election, Rivlin continued advocating for bi-partisanship in policymaking in health care, writing that “whatever the outcome of the election, major changes in health policy will require detailed bipartisan negotiations and buy-in from the public and a vast array of healthcare stakeholders.” She continued: “The post-election challenge for the Congress and the White House will be to break out of partisan gridlock and work together to craft compromises that enable at least incremental progress toward a better-functioning health system.” Even after the election, she advised President-Elect Trump on how to “Create TrumpCare and make it great.”
Throughout the first years of the Trump administration, Rivlin continued to offer policy recommendations on understanding the role of the Congressional Budget Office; how Republicans could work with Democrats on health care reform “that moderates in both parties can support and defend”; and the costs of federal budget dysfunction—“It is both frightening and embarrassing,” she testified to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs’ Subcommittee on Federal Spending Oversight and Emergency Management on February 6, 2018,
that the world’s most experienced democracy is currently unable to carry out even the basic responsibility of funding the services that Americans are expecting from their government in the current fiscal year. Limping from one short-term continuing resolution to another, combining individual appropriations bills into unwieldy omnibus bills that no one is able to study or even read, and threatening to close the government (or default on the debt) if certain conditions are not met are all symptoms of a deeply broken decision-making process.
Rivlin maintained an unwavering commitment to centrist bipartisanship in policymaking, as she explained in 2018:
There are two reasons for creating economic policy through bipartisan negotiation. The first is that households and businesses need relatively stable policies that allow them to plan future actions. Frequent big swings in tax laws or public provision of retirement or health care benefits, for example, add to uncertainty and impede decision-making. Since the electorate is roughly equally divided between Republicans and Democrats and tends to swing back and forth as hopes for one-party miracles are replaced with disillusionment, stable economic policy requires bipartisan buy-in.
“The other reason why major economic policy requires bipartisanship,” she wrote, echoing one of her “biases” from her 1992 book Reviving the American Dream, “is that meeting the big challenges facing our economy, such as reining in the projected increase in national debt, requires sharing the pain as well as the gain.”
If there are any through-lines for Alice Rivlin’s body of publications, they would have to include sound policy analysis and improving the public policy process. In March 2019, I had the privilege of interviewing Alice for an episode of the Brookings Cafeteria podcast. During the conversation about her career and accomplishments, Rivlin explained that, throughout her career, “I was always interested in doing good policy analysis and improving the policy process and the notion that if Congress or the president or whoever was making the decision had good information about what the options were … and what it might cost, that they’d make better decisions.”
Rivlin, in addition to being a public servant and policy analyst, was also a teacher. During her career, she held teaching positions at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, George Mason University, New School University, and Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy. Speaking to McCourt graduates at their commencement in 2017, Rivlin congratulated them on choosing public policy careers over possibly more lucrative roles. And she told them that she was not worried about America’s economic future (“our economy is strong and resilient”), nor about the Trump presidency (“our Constitutional checks and balances are strong and will enable us to survive these risks”). “What worries me,” Rivlin said, “is that we are not working together to forge those policy responses.” She continued:
Our political leaders are not even addressing the serious concerns of average Americans. They are yelling accusations at each other across a widening political divide. They are blaming and demonizing each other. Political campaigns have turned into ugly shouting matches, and governing has turned into continuous campaigning. The casualties have been civil discourse, respect for facts and knowledge, and above all the fundamental idea that making policy always requires listening to each other’s views, finding common ground, and forging a compromise that most of the participants can live with.
To learn more about Alice Rivlin’s accomplishments, career, and publications, download her CV. To get a better perspective on her role and contributions to American civic life and the Brookings Institution, read the memorial post from Brookings.