Alice Rivlin, who died yesterday at age 88, was a policy legend. She also was a kind, generous, and extraordinarily tough woman. Over more than half-century of work in Washington, she was friend and mentor to hundreds of policy experts, journalists, and public officials.
The depth of her resume as a public servant may have been unprecedented in modern US history. Remarkably, she began her career in public service in 1961. She was President Clinton’s budget director. She was vice-chair of the Federal Reserve Board. She was, most importantly, the founding director of the Congressional Budget Office. She helped dig the District of Columbia out of an epic budget and management hole as chair of its Financial Assistance and Management Authority. She served on countless other boards and commissions.
Everybody who worked in the fiscal policy world over the past half-century has their own Alice Rivlin story. Her staffers, colleagues, and successor directors at CBO absolutely revered her. Doug Holtz-Eakin, who led CBO from 2003-2005, calls her simply, “the greatest public servant I’ve ever known.”
Here is my story. It isn’t about the budget.
A decade ago, I became deeply involved in the issue of how our society cares for older adults. My interest led to a book. But before I started writing I surveyed existing volumes on the subject.
There weren’t many, at least not many worth reading. But there was Caring for Our Disabled Elderly: Who Will Pay. The authors were Josh Weiner (himself a legend in aging policy) and, yes, Alice. An incredible polymath, she got interested enough in the topic to write her own book. In 1988.
In effect, she already had written the book I wanted to write—20 years earlier.
By the time I embarked on this project, I had known Alice for 30 years. I was a journalist who specialized in taxes and the budget. She was, well, someone who knew everything about taxes and the budget.
To be honest, she was not entirely comfortable talking to reporters, especially in her CBO days. But over time we got to know each other. She always was willing to teach. And I was thrilled to have the chance to learn from her.
Of course, I called her when I started my long-term care project. We had a long lunch—at the Brookings cafeteria. And she could not have been more supportive. Always modest, she seemed genuinely surprised that I had read her book. She had lots of questions, and made me think harder about what I wanted to say.
In the end, my book was different from hers. I used lots of family stories. She didn’t. I wrote mine for a non-expert audience. Hers was for academics and policy people. But when it came to policy insights, I had nothing new. She and Josh had said it all.
But Alice was much more than a policy wonk. She had an extraordinary ability to bring people to the table and build consensus on difficult issues.
She was modest, patient, and firm. She was not tied to ideology or politics. Like all good economists, she insisted on following the data. Good data didn’t lie, and under her leadership, people of good will could come to the best possible solutions to vexing problems.
That was the culture she built at CBO in enormously challenging circumstances. One job of the CBO director is to deliver bad news to powerful people. And Members of Congress don’t like to hear bad news from staff.
In the 1970s and early 80s, I watched from my journalist’s perch as Alice built CBO. Through grit and determination she trained Congress to acknowledge and respect CBOs independence. It could not have been easy for Alice to stand up to the dons of Congress. But she did it.
When I joined the Tax Policy Center about a decade ago, I found myself surrounded by people who had worked for and with Alice. They transferred that culture of independence and non-partisanship— her culture—to TPC.
She made Washington, and America, a better place. Thank you, Alice.
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