Alice M. Rivlin, who had a guiding hand in national economic affairs for decades, playing a foundational role with the Congressional Budget Office and serving as budget director, a Cabinet-level post, under President Bill Clinton, died Tuesday at her home in Washington. She was 88.
The Brookings Institution, the Washington think tank with which she was long affiliated, announced her death.
Rivlin spent much of her career bouncing back and forth from Brookings to top government posts, among them vice chairwoman of the Federal Reserve Board under Alan Greenspan.
In yet another incarnation, she volunteered to help nurse the near-bankrupt District of Columbia government back to health in the 1990s by running its Financial Management Assistance Authority. In that post, she was said to wield more operational power than the mayor and the City Council combined.
But it was her tenure as the founding director of the Congressional Budget Office, whose creation she had advocated, that established her as one of Washington’s most influential economists.
She was widely credited with shaping the CBO into an authoritative and nonpartisan fiscal analyst, the first to provide Congress with reliable and impartial data on the fiscal consequences of a broad range of proposed legislation.
“I think it’s the biggest contribution I made,’’ Rivlin said in an interview for this obituary in 2008, noting that she had insisted that its work be limited to analysis. “The most important decision I made was that we would not make recommendations.”
She and her staff, which swelled to 225, were nonetheless repeatedly challenged along partisan lines as electoral tides shifted. Reagan administration officials, for example, complained that her conventional estimation models did not reflect the virtues, as they saw them, of supply-side economics, which argued that lowering taxes and cutting regulations would spur economic growth.
On another occasion, she disparaged a Clinton administration deficit-reduction idea as a “display device.”
Rivlin came to regard complaints from politicians of all stripes as the inevitable price of being what she called a “professional critic of wishful thinking.”
An enrolled Democrat, Rivlin said she often saw herself more as a liberal Republican. In her book “Reviving the American Dream: The Economy, the States & the Federal Government” (1992), in which she argued that deficits were the biggest impediment to economic growth, she called herself “a fanatical, card-carrying middle-of-the-roader.’’
In 1971, she took a leave from Brookings at the urging of her friend Meg Greenfield, an editor at The Washington Post, to write editorials for the newspaper when a staff member suddenly left.
In subsequent decades, she wrote a regular column for The Los Angeles Times and turned out a prodigious number of op-ed articles as well as policy papers for Brookings.
(In the 2008 interview, she said, “I’m a writer who sometimes serves in government rather than a government worker who sometimes writes.”)
Rivlin could be unequivocal in her opinions. She once approvingly quoted a critic who called Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — the publicly sponsored but privately owned mortgage giants now largely controlled by the government — examples of “the most deceitful socialism I know.”
She was born Georgianna Alice Mitchell (called Georgie Alice as a girl, she later preferred to go by Alice) on March 4, 1931, in Philadelphia and grew up mainly in Bloomington, Indiana, where her father, Allan C.G. Rivlin, headed the Indiana University physics department and worked on developing the atomic bomb as part of the Manhattan Project. Her mother, Georgianna (Fales) Rivlin, was a national officer of the League of Women Voters.