Alice M. Rivlin, a master of budgetary policy who held senior positions in the executive and legislative branches of government — notably as founding director of the Congressional Budget Office — and whose stewardship of the D.C. Financial Control Board guided the once-insolvent city to solid financial footing, died May 14 at her home in Washington. She was 88.
The cause was cancer, said her son Douglas Rivlin.
Dr. Rivlin, a centrist Democratic economist known for evenhanded analysis and an unflappable demeanor, weaved in and out of government service over a career spanning more than five decades. During her long affiliation with the Brookings Institution in Washington, she did not push a particular school of economic thought but served as a moderating influence on politically driven ideologies.
“She was the decathlete of public policy,” said Robert Reischauer, an economist who helped Dr. Rivlin set up the Congressional Budget Office in 1975 and later headed the agency. “There is almost no area of public policy where she wasn’t active and contributing at a very high level, and that’s extremely unusual.”
As head of the Congressional Budget Office from 1975 to 1983, Dr. Rivlin weathered intense political head winds and set the agency on course to be Congress’s highly respected arbiter of fiscal policy. In 1994, President Bill Clinton made her the first female director of the White House Office of Management and Budget. From 1996 to 1999, she was vice chair of the Federal Reserve.
She had long led analysis of the District of Columbia’s increasingly precarious financial condition. In 1990, she headed a commission that warned of imminent financial crisis and called for drastic measures to address a projected deficit of up to $700 million in 1996.
The report cited a bloated bureaucracy and cost overruns as central reasons for the impending calamity. Meanwhile, public services were decaying, businesses and middle-class taxpayers were fleeing, the crack cocaine epidemic was raging, and a surge in violent crime earned the city designation as the “murder capital” of the United States.
Mayor Marion Barry served six months in prison after being convicted of drug possession, and Sharon Pratt Kelly, his successor in the early 1990s, proved an inexperienced administrator unable to stabilize the city’s finances.
The city continued to bleed life and money, even worse than under Barry, who made a surprise mayoral comeback in 1994 under the campaign pitch: “I’m in recovery and so is my city.” The next year, Congress set up the control board, officially named the D.C. Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority, largely on the basis of the report from Dr. Rivlin’s task force.
Local leaders rebelled, with Barry calling the congressional intervention a “rape of democracy.” Many civic and community figures who had fought for home rule saw their independence ceded to Congress with the federally appointed panel that stripped the mayor of operational control and installed a chief management officer to run the city government.
Andrew F. Brimmer, a Harvard-trained economist and the first black member of the Federal Reserve Board, was named to lead the panel, and he became a high-profile target of Barry’s wrath.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who once supported the financial takeover, criticized the Brimmer board as acting with an “imperial” style that set “a deeply adversarial tone.” Brimmer stepped down after his three-year term ended, by which time the city’s fortunes were beginning to make a turnaround.
“He took on a really thankless job in 1995,” Dr. Rivlin later told The Washington Post. “He was deeply unpopular. His office was picketed, and he was called all sorts of names. But he stuck to it and turned things around. He did the really tough work.”
Dr. Rivlin succeeded Brimmer, serving as chairwoman until the board completed its work in 2001. She avoided most of the partisan and racially tinged rancor surrounding the board, preferring to stay in the background.
In a 2001 tribute to Dr. Rivlin, then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams compared her to the North Star, which, contrary to popular belief, is not the brightest in the sky — that distinction goes to Sirius — but it is still relied upon for true navigation.
The low-key Dr. Rivlin “doesn’t have the biggest radiance and the biggest candlepower,” Williams said, but she was central to bringing the District back from the brink.
“She helped save Washington, D.C.,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a Republican budget analyst who ran the CBO from 2003 to 2005. “She never talked about it and she never took credit for it, but the outcome was fantastic — the city was solvent.”
Georgianna Alice Mitchell — she always preferred her middle name — was born in Philadelphia on March 4, 1931. Her father was a nuclear physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project and later became a professor. Her mother was a national officer of the League of Women Voters.
She graduated in 1948 from the private Madeira School in McLean, Va., and in 1952 from Bryn Mawr in Pennsylvania. She received a master’s degree in 1955 and a doctorate in 1958, both in economics, from Radcliffe College in Massachusetts.
Her first marriage, to lawyer Lewis Rivlin, ended in divorce. In 1989, she married Sidney G. Winter, an economist and professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton business school. Besides her husband, of Washington, survivors include three children from her first marriage, Catherine Rivlin of Palo Alto, Calif., and Allan Rivlin and Douglas Rivlin, both of Washington; two stepsons, Jeff Winter of Mendocino, Calif., and Kit Winter of Los Angeles; and five grandchildren.
Dr. Rivlin was working at Brookings when, in 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson named her — then a rising researcher on budgetary and social programs — deputy assistant secretary for program analysis at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.
After the Watergate scandal drove President Richard Nixon from office in 1974, Congress created the CBO in response to what it perceived as executive branch overreach. The agency offered Congress independent economic analysis that would at times challenge the administration’s Office of Management and Budget.
In her roles across government, Dr. Rivlin avoided ideology while deflating overly rosy presidential and congressional economic projections. She often saw greater costs and fewer savings than many political leaders were willing to acknowledge.
In 1977, the CBO assessed President Jimmy Carter’s energy program and found that energy savings would not measure up to his promises. “It made the Carter Administration unhappy,” Dr. Rivlin told the New York Times in 1982. “It also made [House Speaker Thomas P. ‘Tip’ O’Neill Jr. (D-Mass.)] unhappy. He was fighting for the legislation and the CBO wasn’t helping.”
During Ronald Reagan’s first administration, she projected deficits far higher than those anticipated in his budgets, leading the president to pronounce her numbers “phony.” When conservatives wanted to replace her, she hung tough and kept her job. She left in 1983 after her term expired, heading back to Brookings.
During her years at the CBO, Dr. Rivlin joined a group of high-powered women who took trips and met regularly to discuss policy. She was cautious about publicly expressing feminist beliefs, but, during a stint as a Washington Post editorial writer in 1974, she wrote an essay highlighting the daily acts of male condescension that professional women face.
She discussed one man who “urged me to apply for a minor administrative post at his third-rate university because ‘they want a woman, and it’s an awfully important job to consider a woman for.’ ” She said other men — including a U.S. senator — expressed surprise upon meeting her that a serious female economist would not be “chunkier” or “wear a tight bun and sensible shoes.”
In 1983, Dr. Rivlin received a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, often called a “genius grant.” Her other awards included a $100,000 prize from the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research in 2016 for her efforts to improve everyday lives through economic policy. She taught at Harvard, Georgetown and George Mason universities and wrote or co-wrote books including “Caring for the Disabled Elderly” (1988) and “Reviving the American Dream” (1992).
In a 1994 Post profile, Dr. Rivlin was criticized as having a political blind spot. An anonymous congressional source, recalling her time at the CBO, said she tended not to anticipate such questions as: “What are the political ramifications of this? Who’s going to be [teed] off? Do you give a heads-up here or there? Some things are so clear to her that she thinks surely everyone must think this way.”
Dr. Rivlin acknowledged a degree of truth in the description. But, she added, “If you get too cautious, you’ll end up saying nothing at all.”