CARTER: What I Learned From Alice Rivlin

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James Carter Head of tax policy implementation on 2016 Trump transition team
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“That is the sort of thinking we want to try to avoid in this classroom.”

Those were Alice Rivlin’s exact words to me — actually, her first words to me — on my first day in her graduate public policy class at George Mason University 27 years ago. Little did I know, but that moment marked the start of my professional career and an improbable, and life-changing, friendship with one of America’s most decent and deserving public servants.

Alice’s death on Tuesday was jarring and, for me, a soul-searching moment. The bottom line? I learned more from Alice, and I owe her far more, than anyone will ever know. Please allow me to explain.

Recovering from that first inglorious moment in early 1992, I soon became Alice’s graduate teaching assistant. I was ecstatic. After all, Alice was the founding director of the Congressional Budget Office (1975-1983) and I had an abiding interest in federal budget policy. Truth-be-told, I was, and continue to be, a proud “budget geek.” (Some people yearn to be a sports personality or a rock star. I’ve long wanted to be a budget director. Please don’t hold that against me.)

Alice holds the distinction as the longest serving CBO director. As Rudy Penner, her immediate successor, explained: “When Alice’s term ended and they floundered about appointing a successor, she decided that she would remain in office, sort of to protect the place as it were, until they appointed someone. She had no notion it would take nine months. In fact, there were ‘Free Alice Rivlin’ buttons coming out on the Hill.”

After several months of working for Alice at George Mason, and after my time as a summer intern at CBO — thank you for arranging that, Alice — I learned in late 1992 that Bill Clinton asked Alice to serve in his administration. She accepted and I had the honor of accompanying Alice to the White House as one of her special assistants. It was an education.

As a conservative Republican serving in the Clinton administration, I learned firsthand that, although Republicans and Democrats are often divided by ideology, both political parties are filled with well-intentioned public servants who want nothing more than to do what they think is best for the American people. Who knew?

Actually, if the American people knew, we’d be more united and better prepared to face the future.

I learned far more at OMB as Alice’s assistant than I ever learned in graduate school. It was the equivalent of being thrown into the deep end of the pool. And it worked!

One funny story. After working in the Clinton administration for nearly six months, one Clinton appointee — and likely more — thought I was a holdover from the George H.W. Bush administration. She swore I walked and talked like a Republican. There was, she said, no way I was a Clinton appointee. Were my natural political predilections that obvious? (When I left the Clinton administration to work for the Republican National Committee, Alice bore the brunt of the dismay within the administration. Again, thank you Alice.)

Regardless, just prior to the 1992 presidential election, Alice published one of her 22 (!) books. Titled Reviving the American Dream, Alice’s book couldn’t have been more perfectly timed.

I vividly recall a newspaper article during the 1992 presidential campaign featuring a picture of Bill Clinton reading Alice’s book. I knew then she would play an outsized role in the Clinton administration. From Jan. 20, 1993 until mid-1999, Alice would serve three vitally important roles: deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), director of OMB, and vice chair of the Federal Reserve. What a career!

Why did President Clinton appoint Alice to these positions? She had no prior connection to the president. She wasn’t involved with Clinton’s presidential campaign. I like to think it was because Bill Clinton appreciated Alice’s positive, professional, no nonsense perspective.

In her 1992 book, Alice wrote: “All authors have their biases. One of mine is optimism. I believe that America’s current economic and political problems are serious but not insurmountable, and that we will find ways to solve them.”

Alice was right. America blossomed in the 1990s. Productivity and economic growth bloomed and we enjoyed an historic era of peace and prosperity. Republicans and Democrats both deserve credit for that success. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Alice admitted her other biases included “pragmatism” and a dislike of “magic wands and painless solutions.” In Washington, D.C., these views are about as rare and valuable as the northern hairy nosed wombat. (That animal is exceedingly rare. Look it up!)

It’s no secret that the federal budget is now on an unsustainable path. Although Alice’s optimistic and pragmatic perspective gives me comfort, there is legitimate cause for concern.

Little more than a year before her untimely death at age 88, Alice testified before the Senate’s Subcommittee on Federal Spending Oversight and Emergency Management. Quoting from her testimony, Alice sought to “call attention to the total breakdown of federal budgetary policy-making.” She continued, “I believe this breakdown is a serious threat to our democracy and America’s future prosperity.” Again, Alice was right.

Having worked on the staff of the U.S. Senate Budget Committee from 2008 to 2011, I know how completely dysfunctional the federal budget process has become. It is completely and utterly unworkable. It’s no wonder we’re now saddled with a gross federal debt exceeding $22 trillion. (That’s $22,000,000,000,000.)

This is nothing new. I recently came across a paper I wrote in 1992 — for Alice’s class — critiquing the federal budget process. Most of the budget process problems we face today, existed nearly 30 years ago. (As an aside, I received an “A” on that paper. Alice’s only criticism was that my paper “quotes Rivlin too much!”)

What did I learn from Alice Rivlin? There are rarely public policy solutions, only (often difficult) trade-offs. Partisanship wins elections, but effective governing often requires setting partisanship aside. There’s far more than I can summarize here, but I owe an immense debt of gratitude to Alice Rivlin. I will truly miss her.

James Carter served as a political appointee in both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations in a variety of positions, including, most recently, as deputy undersecretary of labor. He also served, even more recently, as the head of tax policy implementation on President Trump’s transition team.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.