Alice Rivlin made the world a better place in so many ways. She will forgive me for ignoring most of them in this brief essay because she was remarkably modest. Instead, this is a personal reflection based upon a string of tweets I wrote yesterday when I heard she had died.
Alice was the first director of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). With her deputy, Bob Reischauer, she made the CBO an extraordinary institution, studiously nonpartisan but unafraid to weigh in on important public policy issues with the best advice and analysis the professional staff could provide.
Congress designed CBO as a counterweight to the White House on budget issues. Alice could have set CBO up to only do cost estimates, which would have been a valuable public service. But it is so much more: providing authoritative and accessible data and analysis on a breathtaking range of policy issues.
CBO built the most thorough editorial and review process I’ve ever encountered. (I was a staff economist there from 1988 to 1997.) The cumbersome vetting process is exasperating – but critical to maintaining CBO’s credibility. CBO reports present all the relevant evidence but never draw conclusions. While CBO never takes a position on policy, smart readers can figure out the bottom line for themselves.
This challenges reporters to do more than just report that “CBO says…” or “CBO recommends…” Good reporters see CBO publications as a kind of treasure hunt. And CBO staff feel a sense of accomplishment when news stories reach the conclusion they’d have liked to write.
When I joined the CBO staff in 1988, Alice had been gone for a while, but her spirit was still in the building. I called her “the Blessed Alice” because staff would always refer to her in hushed tones appropriate for a saint. Everyone who worked with her loved and admired her.
I first met Alice at a seminar when she was Vice Chair of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors. She sat down next to me, pulled out her bag lunch, and said, “Hi. I’m Alice.” I was starstruck, but also loved that she was so unassuming.
Years later, she invited me to be part of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s debt reduction task force, which she co-chaired with former Republican Senator Pete Dominici. She was brilliant and incredibly knowledgeable about budget policy, but impressed me most with her exceptional people skills.
She gently steered Pete and a bunch of other policy rock stars with wildly divergent perspectives and strong opinions to produce a report that was comprehensive and sensible. She promised to share especially good ideas with the other, more official, deficit reduction commission she was on—the one co-chaired by Democrat (former White House Chief of Staff) Erskine Bowles and Republican (former senator) Alan Simpson. Sure enough, our best ideas were in that plan too.
Alice’s CBO was the model for the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center (TPC). We decided at the outset that TPC would be strictly nonpartisan and share facts, evidence, and careful analysis in the clearest and most accessible terms we could muster. I’m convinced that that has been a key to our success and durability. That plus the fact Alice, as well as three of her successors– Bob Reischauer, Rudy Penner, and Donald Marron– have been associated with the TPC.
Alice Rivlin devoted her life to public service. She was super smart, incredibly nice, and tough as nails. Her life was a blessing and inspiration to all of us.
Rest in Peace, Blessed Alice. And thank you.
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