The Brookings Institution today honors and remembers Alice M. Rivlin, a trailblazer in the field of economic policy and a civil servant of unparalleled devotion. Rivlin was a cherished member of the Brookings community for more than sixty years.
Throughout her storied career in Washington, Rivlin held senior positions in three presidential administrations. She chaired offices and agencies in both the executive and legislative branches of government and served on the policymaking board of the U.S. central bank. The Library of Congress has catalogued more than 10,000 items related to her tenure in government service. Rivlin’s expertise and skills—and her unique ability to build bridges across political parties—played key roles in the formation of U.S. economic policy for more than half a century.
Though we at Brookings mourn the loss of a friend and colleague, we also celebrate Alice Rivlin’s legacy.
“Alice Rivlin was renowned for her exceptional contributions to so many areas of public policy and her distinguished public service as founder of the Congressional Budget Office, head of OMB and Vice Chair of the Federal Reserve Board,” says Janet Yellen, Distinguished Fellow in Residence for Economic Studies and the Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy. “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.”
A pioneer and a scholar
Alice Rivlin graduated Bryn Mawr college in 1952. In 1958, she earned her PhD in economics from Radcliffe College—five years before the women’s college began the process of merging with Harvard University. Rivlin landed in the economics department only after Harvard’s school of public administration rejected her application for fear that admitting a woman who might soon be married was a “poor risk.” Rivlin first joined Brookings as a research fellow in 1957 and would remain affiliated with Brookings for the next 60 years, leaving for periods of civil service, and rejoining.
From 1968 to 1969, Rivlin served in the Johnson administration in what is now the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) at what was then called the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW). At ASPE, Rivlin advised the Secretary and advocated for new ways of quantifying, measuring, and evaluating proposed policies.
“We thought we were pioneers, crusaders for a cause,” she once said of the new approach to policymaking. “To many of the seasoned bureaucrats in the Department we must have sounded pretty naive and silly. But we found out that they had a lot of knowledge and relevant experience. They found out that some of our crazy ideas made sense and helped them make and defend decisions.” After leaving HEW, Rivlin returned to Brookings where she published the classic policy text, “Systematic Thinking for Social Action.”
In 1975, public service called again. Rivlin was asked to serve as the founding director of the newly-created Congressional Budget Office (CBO)—an independent agency that provides Congress with economic information and scores proposed legislation. She served as Director of CBO until 1983. Rivlin remained a staunch defender of the agency’s independence throughout her career. In 2017, when CBO found itself in the crosshairs of a political fight over the future of Obamacare, Rivlin reminded lawmakers that allowing the agency to fulfill its mission was in the best interest of Democrats, Republicans, and independents alike.
Rivlin was a passionate advocate for a bipartisan approach to policymaking. As the policy environment grew increasingly—and often unbearably—polarized, she consistently encouraged policymakers to reach across the aisle and put the American people first. “Programs that affect people’s lives so intimately,” she once wrote, “must flow from a broad bipartisan consensus.”
“I looked to her for lessons about leadership, common sense, and how to bring people together in an increasing divided world,” says Karen Dynan, Vice President of Economic Studies at Brookings from 2009 to 2013. “Alice knew how to be an intellectual force, while still exuding kindness and compassion to just about everyone who came into contact with her.”
After her time at CBO, Rivlin returned again to Brookings. In 1983, she was appointed director of the Economic Studies program. That same year, she won the prestigious MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” for forging new links between academic research and federal policies.
During the Clinton administration, Rivlin took her expertise to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) at the White House. From 1993-1994, she served as the Deputy Director and then 1994 to 1996, she was the Director of OMB. In 1996, Rivlin was appointed to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve, where she served as Vice Chair until 1999.
In May of 1998, Rivlin was named by President Clinton to Chair the District of Columbia Financial Control Board and served as Chair until the Board was dissolved. While at Brookings, she had been appointed by the Washington, DC Mayor to chair a blue ribbon commission for the city, the Commission on Budget and Financial Priorities, which issued a landmark report in 1990 calling attention to the city’s long-term financial insecurities.
In 2010, President Obama named Rivlin to the Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. She also co-chaired, with former Senator Pete Domenici, the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Task Force on Debt Reduction. She has been called, and rightly so, “the queen of Washington’s budget wonks.”
“As someone committed to economic policymaking, one could hardly ask for a better hero,” says Douglas Elmendorf, dean and Don K. Price Professor of Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and a former Brookings scholar. “For more than half a century, Alice set the standard in Washington for the rigorous use of evidence in policy formulation, for open-mindedness to alternative perspectives about desirable policy, for building and sustaining institutions to bring serious analysis to bear in the policy process, and for ensuring that policymakers focus on people who have had the least opportunity to thrive in their lives.”
Rivlin’s contributions—to the field of economics, to the policymaking community, and to the American people—are too numerous to count, and she received several prestigious awards for her work. In 2008, the National Association of Business Economics named Alice recipient of Paul A. Volcker Lifetime Achievement Award for Economic Policy. The same year, the American Academy of Political and Social Science awarded her the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Prize, and the Council for Excellence in Government named her one of the greatest public servants of the last 25 years. In 2013, she received the Robert M. Ball Award from the National Academy of Social Insurance, and in 2016, she received the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research prize. Rivlin taught at Harvard, Georgetown, George Mason, and The New School Universities, and she served on the boards of directors of several corporations, and, notably, as president of the American Economic Association in 1986.
The Brookings Institution will be forever indebted to Alice Rivlin for her innumerable contributions to our work. Our community will never forget her integrity, her energy, and her commitment to policy that speaks for and serves all Americans.