Alice Rivlin, budget maestro who ‘helped save’ Washington in fiscal crisis, dies at 88

FILE - Proud about being appointed President Clinton's budget director, Alice Rivlin, shown in this Jan. 1993 file photo, made the kind of overstatement in words that this careful economist would never make with numbers. She was pleased to be the first woman nominated to head the Office of Management and Budget, she said, and anticipated someday having her portrait hanging in the OMB conference room alongside all those male budget directors. Then she went too far: ``Fortunately we're running out of firsts'' for women. In fact, there are lots of portrait-lined corridors of power left in Washington from which no female face looks down. (AP Photo/FILE)
Associated Press
Alice Rivlin was the first leader of the Congressional Budget Office.

WASHINGTON — Alice Rivlin, a master of budgetary policy who held senior positions in the executive and legislative branches of government — notably as founding director of the Congressional Budget Office — and whose stewardship of the District of Columbia Financial Control Board guided the once-insolvent city to solid financial footing, died Tuesday at her home in Washington. She was 88.

The cause was cancer, said her son Douglas.

Dr. Rivlin, a centrist Democratic economist known for even-handed analysis and an unflappable demeanor, weaved in and out of government service over a career spanning more than five decades. During her long affiliation with the Brookings Institution in Washington, she did not push a particular school of economic thought but served as a moderating influence on politically driven ideologies.


‘‘She was the decathlete of public policy,’’ said Robert Reischauer, an economist who helped Dr. Rivlin set up the Congressional Budget Office in 1975 and later headed the agency. ‘‘There is almost no area of public policy where she wasn’t active and contributing at a very high level, and that’s extremely unusual.’’

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As head of the Congressional Budget Office from 1975 to 1983, Dr. Rivlin weathered intense political head winds and set the agency on course to be Congress’s highly respected arbiter of fiscal policy.

Congress created the CBO in response to what it perceived as executive branch overreach. The agency offered Congress independent economic analysis that would at times challenge the administration’s Office of Management and Budget.

In 1994, President Clinton made her the first female director of the Office of Management and Budget. From 1996 to 1999, she was vice chair of the Federal Reserve.

She had long led analysis of the District of Columbia’s increasingly precarious financial condition. In 1990, she headed a commission that warned of imminent financial crisis and called for drastic measures to address a projected deficit of up to $700 million in 1996.


The report cited a bloated bureaucracy and cost overruns as central reasons for the impending calamity. Meanwhile, public services were decaying, businesses and middle-class taxpayers were fleeing, the crack cocaine epidemic was raging, and a surge in violent crime earned the city designation as the ‘‘murder capital’’ of the United States.

Mayor Marion Barry served six months in prison after being convicted of drug possession, and Sharon Pratt Kelly, his successor in the early 1990s, proved to be an inexperienced administrator unable to stabilize the city’s finances.

The city continued to bleed life and money, even worse than under Barry, who made a surprise mayoral comeback in 1994 under the pitch: ‘‘I’m in recovery and so is my city.’’

The next year, Congress set up the control board, officially named the D.C. Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority, largely on the basis of the report from Dr. Rivlin’s task force.

Local leaders rebelled, with Barry calling the congressional intervention a ‘‘rape of democracy.’’ Many civic and community figures who had fought for home rule saw their independence ceded to Congress with the federally appointed panel that stripped the mayor of operational control and installed a chief management officer to run the city government.


Andrew Brimmer, a Harvard-trained economist and the first black member of the Federal Reserve Board, was named to lead the panel, and he became a high-profile target of Barry’s wrath.

Brimmer stepped down after his three-year term ended, by which time the city’s fortunes were beginning to make a turnaround.

“He was called all sorts of names. But he stuck to it and turned things around,’’ Dr. Rivlin said. “He did the really tough work.’’

Dr. Rivlin succeeded Brimmer, serving as chairwoman until the board completed its work in 2001. She avoided most of the partisan rancor surrounding the board.

In a 2001 tribute to Dr. Rivlin, then-Mayor Anthony Williams compared her to the North Star, which is still relied upon for true navigation.

‘‘She helped save Washington, D.C.,’’ said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a Republican budget analyst who ran the CBO from 2003 to 2005. ‘‘She never talked about it and she never took credit for it, but the outcome was fantastic — the city was solvent.’’

Georgianna Alice Mitchell — she always preferred her middle name — was born in Philadelphia on March 4, 1931. Her father was a nuclear physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project and later became a professor. Her mother was a national officer of the League of Women Voters.

She graduated in 1952 from Bryn Mawr, then received a master’s degree and a doctorate in 1958, both in economics, from Radcliffe College.

Her first marriage, to lawyer Lewis Rivlin, ended in divorce. In 1989, she married Sidney Winter, an economist and professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton business school. Besides her husband and her son, both of Washington, she leaves a daughter, Catherine, of Palo Alto, Calif.; a son, Allan, also of Washington; two stepsons, Jeff Winter of Mendocino, Calif., and Kit Winter of Los Angeles; and five grandchildren.

In her roles across government, Dr. Rivlin avoided ideology while deflating overly rosy presidential and congressional economic projections. She often saw greater costs and fewer savings than many political leaders acknowledged.

In 1977, the CBO assessed President Carter’s energy program and found that savings would not measure up to his promises. ‘‘It made the Carter administration unhappy,’’ Dr. Rivlin told the New York Times in 1982. ‘‘It also made [House Speaker Thomas ‘Tip’ O’Neill Jr.] unhappy. He was fighting for the legislation and the CBO wasn’t helping.’’

During Ronald Reagan’s first administration, she projected deficits far higher than those anticipated in his budgets, leading the president to pronounce her numbers ‘‘phony.’’ She left in 1983 after her term expired, heading back to Brookings.

She also taught at Harvard, Georgetown, and George Mason universities and wrote or co-wrote books including ‘‘Caring for the Disabled Elderly’’ (1988) and ‘‘Reviving the American Dream’’ (1992).

In a 1994 Post profile, Dr. Rivlin was criticized as having a political blind spot. An anonymous congressional source, recalling her time at the CBO, said she tended not to anticipate such questions as: ‘‘What are the political ramifications of this? Who’s going to be [teed] off? Do you give a heads-up here or there?’’

Dr. Rivlin acknowledged a degree of truth in the description. But, she added, ‘‘If you get too cautious, you’ll end up saying nothing at all.’’