THE CONGRESSMAN, looking down from the top tier of the committee hearing room dais, put the question to Congressional Budget Office director Alice M. Rivlin directly. "How," asked Rep. William L. Dickinson (R-Ala.), ranking minority member of the House Armed Services Committee, "do you assess the impact of your office? Do you feel that people really listen to you?"
Sometimes congressmen have a way of asking unpredictable questions. Rivlin, seated between two male colleagues at the witness table, a loose-leaf notebook of prepared statements on the table, gave a typically circumspect answer: "Yes..."
It is budget season in Washington. Tomorrow the president presents his proposed budget to Congress. Last Friday Rivlin's office produced three papers timed to coincide with it and precede the congressional budget hearings coming up. For the past few weeks her office has been busy producing its budget projections, economic forecast and alternative budget strategies, information Congress will use in deciding whether to raise taxes and how to spend the country's money.
Friday she predicted that the federal deficit will go up to $157 billion in fiscal 1983, which begins in October. By 1984, it will be equal to as much as 5 percent of the Gross National Product unless Congress decides to raise taxes or cut spending. The president is expected to announce a more optimistic projection tomorrow and to ask Congress for significant budget cuts.
Rivlin, 50, has one of the most important jobs in her field in the country. She was appointed in 1975, shortly after the Congressional Budget Office was created, and reappointed four years later. She runs a staff of about 200 with a budget of about $12 million, and seems to have weathered a short-lived effort to remove her after Reagan was elected on the grounds that she was too liberal. "I'm not a liberal," she said. "Maybe that's why I haven't heard anything."
She came to Washington in 1957 with her then-husband, attorney Lewis A. Rivlin, a 4-month-old baby, and an unfinished dissertation. She quickly found a trusted housekeeper and a fellowship at the Brookings Institution, and in the following 13 years moved from the staff at Brookings to a deputy assistant secretaryship at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, coauthored three books and had two more children.
The titles of her works give an indication of what she thinks about: "Setting National Priorities: The 1974 Budget." "Systematic Thinking and Social Action." "Microanalysis of Socioeconomic Systems." "The U.S. Balance of Payments."
"Alice is defintely a serious person," said Bill Gorham, her former boss at HEW and now president of the Urban Institute.
She's a small, dark-haired woman, on this day wearing a dark plaid dress buttoned up to the neck and low-heeled pumps. Her mannerisms are quick, darting, almost bird-like. She does not relax easily. Her voice, well-modulated when she is doing something like reading her statement to the committee, rises when she is uncomfortable.
Women as successful as Alice Rivlin often mystify other people, particularly those who know how hard it is to balance a home and a job, let alone an important career. Surely these rare creatures must be automatons, or driven, consumed with ambition, devotees of yoga, or ruthless.
But Rivlin sees herself as a person whose career unfolded without any master plan guiding it. "I don't think of myself as being aggressive, I think of myself as being insecure," she said in an interview last year.
She had to overcome a "superwoman" complex as a young mother, trying to be perfect in every way from the PTA to the congressional hearing. "I gradually learned that I can leave dirty dishes in the sink and not make the bed," she said, although a visitor to her Northwest Washington home can see no sign of such sloppiness, notices that every hair is in place and suspects that even the bureau drawers are ready for inspection. The living room is furnished in spare modern furniture in muted tones, with shelves of books along the wall. In back there is a covered swimming pool which she says she doesn't use very often.
She was divorced in 1977 after 22 years of marriage; her husband has since remarried and has had a child with his second wife. "He's one of my best friends," she said,adding that she likes his new wife too.
"I'm enjoying being single. At my age there's a lot of freedom. I enjoy lots of different friends.... It's also a little lonely." She is a jogger, a swimmer, and goes on cross-country ski trips with a group called Washington Women Outdoors.
She set out to be a diplomat. "I was very idealistic.... I was going to be a diplomat and solve the world peace problem," she said. But then she took a summer school course in economics, "to get it out of the way," and her plans changed.
"It's been fun watching little Alice move up the career ladder and maintain her cool," said Reuben Zubrow, the professor that taught that summer school course in Bloomington, Ind. Zubrow, who claims no credit for influencing his former pupil, said he remembers her as an excellent student, although, he added, he was a male chauvinist who "didn't allow little girls to talk."
She went to Madeira, then to Bryn Mawr, then to Radcliffe for a master's and a PhD "I'm a third generation PhD," she said. "Doing graduate work in my family was no big deal."
Her father, Allan Mitchell, was a nuclear physicist and professor at the University of Indiana. Her mother, Georgianna, was active in the League of Women Voters. Her sister, Priscilla Boughton, heads the AID mission in New Delhi. "It's a classic case of achieving women, I guess," she said. And her daughter, Catherine, is currently getting graduate degrees in both business and law and paying her way through school. One son, who lives with her, is a research assistant at Brookings and the other is a freshman at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
She recalled the days when she was turned down for jobs because she was a woman, but is less feminist than dogged. "At Harvard certain libraries and courses were closed to women, but nobody fussed about it because that was just the way it was. When the chairman of the department at the University of Maryland told me he'd love to hire me but he couldn't because they didn't hire women, I didn't fight.
"After Joe Pechman became head of Brookings, he came into my office and said 'I can't believe what we're paying you.' Evidently I was getting several thousand dollars less than men with comparable experience and I didn't even know it."
She is amused that Tip O'Neill' mistakenly calls her "Nancy," probably confusing her with Nancy H. Teeters, who was chief economist on the House Budget Committee, coauthored a book with Rivlin and is now a governor of the Federal Reserve System. "I guess he thinks that all dark-haired women economists are named Nancy," she said with a wry smile.
Her term of office expires next January; she says she has not thought about whether or not she wants to stay on. "It would be counterproductive for me to encourage speculation about that now," she said firmly.
Rivlin's testimony at the Armed Services Committee hearing was on the subject of defense spending and the economy, answering the question: what impact would the proposed 7 percent increase in defense spending have on the economy? The CBO's answer: it "need not necessarily rekindle inflation," but "... the effects of the federal deficit on economic expansion could be quite severe."
She read a 13 1/2-page statement, with two tables, presenting the view that the recession would continue through the first three months of 1982, followed by a slow recovery through 1984. As she talked, 15 of the 44 committee members drifted in to take their seats, some carrying plastic cups of coffee. They looked through the copies of her statement placed in front of them, and when she finished each had a chance to question her. Her manner was straightforward, professional, absent the bantering familiarity common to members and witnesses they see often.
Rep. Dan Daniel (D-Va.): "I've been very disappointed in the business community. We gave them everything they wanted last year -- the business tax reduction, a reduction in government spending, relief from government regulations -- yet I see no evidence they have responded affirmatively by providing more jobs. Have you studied this situation?"
Rivlin: "Yes... you're right in the sense that clearly the projections for investment are nowhere near as large as Congress had hoped. That's because we have had a recession. We do not expect [much] change."
Rep. Daniel: "I wish you'd give us some more information on this."
Rivlin: "We'll do what we can."
Rivlin speaks to committees like this two or three times a week, prepared by briefings from her staff, which is organized into subdivisions of fiscal, tax and economic forecast analysis, and social, national security and natural resources program areas.
"It's like studying for exams," she said last Thursday. "Today I knew I would be asked about defense and the economy, but I didn't know I'd be asked about selling federal land to make up the national deficit." Next weeks she'll testify about "waterway user charges."
Rep. Roy P. Dyson (D-Md.) asks about the effect on the economy of military recruiting; the theory being when there are fewer jobs more men will enlist.
Rivlin: The recruitment situation looks good. The draft is another whole political issue... but it seems to us unless you want to increase the overall size of the Armed Forces a draft would not be necessary.
Dyson: Would they go elsewhere to seek employment if the recovery was better than expected?
Rivlin: Well, the recovery would have to be awfully fast.
She is asked for recommendations for cutting waste in the Defense Department, the budget deficit, the rate of inflation in the Defense Department compared to the general rate, "second sourcing" for defense contracts and ways of raising money other than taxes. Rep. Richard C. White (D-Tex.) expostulates about cost overruns "entering the realm of the unconscionable," like alanyard that should cost $2 costing $50, and Rep. Robert H. Mollohan (D-W.Va.) decries the cost of medical school tuition.
Mollohan can's understand why, if 1 percent of unemployment equals 1.1 million people, and the impact of them on the economy in terms of lost taxes and costs is about $25 billion, the deficit wouldn't be lessened accordingly if those people got jobs.
Rivlin's brief explanation -- "even with a rapid growth rate you would still expect a widening deficit," for other reasons appears insufficient. "I'll have to get back to him on that," she said later.
She enjoys immersing herself in the substance of her work, she said, reading drafts of reports and preparing for testimony. "The part of the job I'm least good at is glad-handing on the hill. I'd much rather be doing something else."
"I would describe Alice as a sort of female Walter Heller," said Zubrow. "He was smooth, not abrasive, not aggressive.... She's a pretty savvy gal."