By: Diane Disney
As a Bryn Mawr undergraduate, Alice Rivlin wanted a career in public administration. And with her rare combination of intelligence, grace, and moxie, she swept past, jumped over, or outwaited all the sexist obstacles placed in her way to become one of the country’s most respected public servants of the past century.
The first major obstacle came when she was advised that she could not pursue graduate work in public administration because she was a “woman of marriageable age.” She promptly switched to economics (another male-dominated field), in which she earned a Ph.D. from Harvard’s Radcliffe College in 1958. (She also married, to Justice Department attorney Lewis Allen Rivlin; they had three children and divorced in 1977). The Brookings Institution helped in this process with a fellowship that enabled her to make difficult demographic projections with the punch cards prevalent then.
After working at Brookings, to which she returned as a senior fellow several times during her career, she served briefly with Rep. Adam Clayton Powell’s Select Committee on Education and Labor. Then President Lyndon Johnson appointed her Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation at the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. By 1971 she was writing editorials for The Washington Post, as well as completing her first major book, Systematic Thinking for Social Action. Two years later she was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
The second major obstacle arose when she was one of two finalists (and the Senate’s choice) for the initial directorship of the newly created Congressional Budget Office. Representative Al Ullman, chair of the House Budget Committee was adamantly opposed to hiring a woman (“actually rather sexist,” she later said on a radio interview). After months of delay, her patience was rewarded when Wilbur D. Mills, head of the House Ways and Means Committee, was forced to resign because of his drunken escapade with Argentinian ecdysiast Fanne Fox and her leap into the Tidal Basin. Rep. Ullman then took his place, and Ullman’s Budget Committee successor agreed to Alice’s selection.
In the next eight years, she created a remarkable agency that lived up to its post-Watergate promise to balance the power of the Office of Management and Budget. She focused on economic analysis of all legislative proposals, never making recommendations but finding ways of avoiding pork-barrel projects for budgetary reasons. Her outstanding performance led to her being elected a NAPA Fellow in 1979 and then to her receiving a MacArthur “genius” award in 1983 while again at Brookings. On a personal level, she remarried in 1989 to Wharton professor Sidney G. Winter but retained her Rivlin surname.
The second President to recognize her talents was Bill Clinton, under whom she served as OMB Deputy Director (1993-1994) and Director (1994-1996), and then Governor and Vice-Chair of the Federal Reserve (1996-1999). Well-known as a deficit hawk, she was particularly proud of having helped create four straight years of federal budget surplus in the late 1990s. She similarly succeeded on the DC Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority. Under President Barack Obama, she served on the bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, generally known as the Simpson-Bowles Commission.
Space limits preclude listing all the titles she held or the awards she received, but it is worth noting that in 2008, with NAPA’s recommendation, the Council for Excellence in Government named her one of the greatest public servants of the past 25 years. And posthumously in 2019, she was named one of the inaugural members of the Government Hall of Fame. Accolades poured in when she died of cancer in 2019, with the Washington Post perhaps summarizing them best: “Alice Rivlin was a humble intellectual giant.”