Alice Rivlin raises her arms to draw a wedge-shaped graph in the air. Diminutive and intense, Rivlin is discussing the soaring federal debt with one arm pointed up — government spending — and one pointed down — revenue.
Her position, at the point in the aerial graph where the spending line and revenue line intersect, puts her in a familiar place, as she says, "in the center of the action." As an economist, a policymaker and an academic, Rivlin has been in the center of budget debates for six presidents in five decades.
Her associate director, Isabel Sawhill, now her colleague at Brookings, calls her an inspiration "both as a woman and an economist, since both of us came of age in an era when 'female economist' was an oxymoron."
Committed to balancing the budget
Rivlin dismisses the importance of her being the first woman in the job, and is more interested in talking about how proud she is that her work there produced a budget surplus in the late 1990s, including the 1993 budget deal with Congress and work on a balanced budget amendment.
During her career, the U.S. budget has ballooned from $269 billion to $3.7 trillion, while the deficit has exploded from $6 billion to $1.5 trillion. But it is the focus today on balancing the nation's budget that has induced her to spend the past year on the two deficit panels.
"If we don't address the rising debt, we will not be able to maintain a prosperous economy," she says. "We can't go on borrowing this much money."
Rivlin, whose office walls have photos of her with Clinton and Reagan, says she's a political moderate. She is a firm believer that closing the deficit requires the "shared sacrifice" of tax changes, spending cuts and reform of entitlements like Social Security and Medicare. She's also delighted with a growing consensus that the nation's income tax system needs to be simplified as part of the process.
"Even in debate over issues, she has a way that doesn't annoy people that she's debating with," says Penner, now at the Urban Institute.
“From AARP’s perspective, Rivlin has mistakenly targeted Social Security cuts to address a deficit that Social Security did not create. And like most economists," says David Certner, AARP’s legislative policy director, "Rivlin’s focus is on numbers. Our concern is that there is not enough attention paid to the impact on real people that would result from cuts to Social Security and Medicare."
Rivlin plans to keep having those debates. Though her 80th birthday is coming, she says she plans to keep doing the work she loves.
"I'm really quite astonished because … many of the issues I've worked on in a long career are at the center of the action and I'm able to play a useful part in it."
Tamara Lytle is a former Washington bureau chief for the Orlando Sentinel.