Happy Birthday to Extraordinary Alice Rivlin

Posted March 7, 2011 at 4:39pm

Dr. Alice Rivlin has the résumé most federal budget people (me included) only dream about. She was the first director of the Congressional Budget Office, deputy director and director of the Office of Management and Budget, and vice chairwoman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve, among many other positions.

Why mention all this now? Rivlin had a big birthday last week, and the finger-pointing and overheated demagoguery over the budget should be stopped for a moment so we can celebrate the continuing contributions of a woman who has devoted much of her career to trying to get federal fiscal policy right.

I first heard about Rivlin — “Alice” to virtually all who work with her — in graduate school. One of my professors, who was as far on the opposite side of the political spectrum as you could get from Alice, offered to contact her on my behalf because he said I wouldn’t learn more from anyone else in Washington, D.C. Alice was just starting to set up the CBO that summer, and I had a chance to watch closely from my intern desk at the Senate Budget Committee as she created one of the most important and needed players in the federal budget debate.

Like much of what the Congressional Budget Act of 1974 created, the CBO was under a great deal of scrutiny and pressure in its first few years as Members of Congress from both political parties adjusted to an independent scorekeeper monitoring fiscal issues. Alice spent a great deal of time and effort defending the CBO from lawmakers who were constantly questioning its numbers, techniques and conclusions, as well as threatening to slash its funding if it didn’t stop delivering bad news or change its numbers. Although its findings are still often attacked, the CBO is alive and well and at least as independent as it was when it launched close to four decades ago. This is Alice’s legacy.

But it hardly stops there. Alice was President Bill Clinton’s first deputy director of the OMB; she became director in 1994 when Leon Panetta was named White House chief of staff. I still remember the joyful, almost euphoric tone in Alice’s voice the day she called me about Clinton’s new balanced budget plan. I have no doubt it was just one of many calls she made to columnists and reporters, but it was hard not to detect her excitement. That was completely understandable: The government achieved its first balanced budget in 29 years in fiscal 1998, four years earlier than in the plan Alice told me about on that phone call, and four consecutive surpluses were realized from 1998 to 2001, something that hadn’t happened since 1927 to 1930.

Washington was in the early stages of today’s era of hyper-partisanship when Clinton nominated Alice for the Fed in 1996. It was a presidential election year, only three months since the second of two government shutdowns, and bad feelings and distrust between the White House and Congressional Republicans were very high. As a result, Alice’s confirmation vote was a partisan and relatively close 57 to 41. 

The extraordinary irony is that Alice was and still is the kind of budget hawk that the fiscal conservatives who voted against her should have supported. Last year, as a member of President Barack Obama’s deficit reduction commission, Alice worked behind the scenes to develop a plan that 14 of 18 members of the panel — the number needed to move the plan forward — would approve. She was one of the 11 commission members who supported the proposal by Co-Chairmen Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson.

More important, however, was the separate plan Alice helped develop as co-chairwoman of the deficit reduction task force at the Bipartisan Policy Center. That report, which was released more than a month before the Bowles-Simpson commission proposal was made public, has been widely praised for the quality of the work and the proposals it included.

This is an extraordinary body of work by virtually any standard. But when compared with the more typical career in federal budgeting — short-lived, strong on rhetoric but weak on substance, etc. — Alice deserves high marks and deep admiration.

That’s why, although others have often tried to claim the title over the years, Alice Rivlin deserves to be considered the doyenne and grand dame of the federal budgeting world. She has earned it and continues to live up to it.

Happy birthday, Alice.

Stan Collender is a partner at Qorvis Communications and founder of the blog Capital Gains and Games. He is also the author of “The Guide to the Federal Budget.”