October 15, 2013

Budget impasse is ‘quite disgraceful,’ says Truman Medal winner Alice Rivlin

John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the House, “has to defy the tea party” and pass a budget deal with the support of some Democrats, said Rivlin, who was in charge of the federal budget during the last government shutdown.

It will take an act of political defiance to resolve Washington’s budget and debt deadlock, said the woman who ran Uncle Sam’s budget during the last government shutdown.

John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the House, “has to defy the tea party” and pass a budget deal with the support of some Democrats, said Alice Rivlin, who was head of President Bill Clinton’s Office of Management and Budget in 1995.

“That’s what I think has to happen.”

She wasn’t giving odds on the outcome.

“I’m hopeful and fearful,” Rivlin said Tuesday in Kansas City.

Rivlin spoke after accepting the Truman Medal for Economic Policy, sponsored in part by the Harry S. Truman Library Institute. The award, given every other year, recognized her career in economic policy and education.

More than most, Rivlin knows a thing or two about Washington’s budget mess.

Her job as head of the federal budget office in 1995 included deciding which parts of the government to keep running and which weren’t essential during the shutdown.

Three years ago, Rivlin and former senator Pete Domenici led a task force that came up with plans to reduce the federal debt to economically manageable levels.

In 1975, with Gerald Ford in the White House, Rivlin opened the Congressional Budget Office as its first director. This nonpartisan group puts a price tag on just about everything Congress does or proposes doing.

Rivlin blasted Washington’s current inability to work out its differences as “discouraging and quite disgraceful” and in sharp contrast with even President Harry Truman’s day.

“This situation is worse than anything I’ve known in a long career in Washington,” she said.

And she blamed Republican tea party members.

“At no time have we had, at least in recent memory, a group in Congress that was willing to say, ‘I don’t care what happens; I’ve got to get my way,’” she said.

Congress and the White House could have resolved their budget and spending differences any time in the last two years, Rivlin said, and moved on to other matters. Instead, the Republican-controlled House and Democratic-controlled Senate keep rejecting each other’s proposals.

The upshot is that countless federal employees and their families are without pay as federal agencies have shut down for lack of appropriations by Congress.

And unless Congress lifts the debt ceiling by Thursday, the U.S. Treasury won’t be able to meet all federal spending commitments. Fears of a default on the federal debt or failure to send out Social Security checks loom.

“This week is an example of the horrors of this deep divide,” Rivlin said.

The Truman Medal recognized Rivlin’s broader achievements in economic policy and education.

In addition to her role in federal budgeting, Rivlin served as vice chairwoman of the Federal Reserve from 1996 to 1999. She has held posts under five presidents, including Barack Obama.

Most recently she has written a series of books on “Restoring Fiscal Sanity.” She currently is a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution and a visiting professor at the Public Policy Institute at Georgetown University.

Rivlin is the fifth winner of the Truman Medal.

The selection is made by a committee formed by the medal’s sponsors: the Truman Library Institute, the Henry W. Bloch School of Management at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, the Economic Club of Kansas City and the Missouri Council on Economic Education.

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