She was born Georgianna Alice Mitchell (called Georgie Alice as a girl, she later preferred to go by Alice) on March 4, 1931, in Philadelphia and grew up mainly in Bloomington, Ind., where her father, Allan C. G. Mitchell, headed the Indiana University physics department. He had worked on developing the atomic bomb as part of the Manhattan Project. Her mother, Georgianna (Fales) Mitchell, was a national officer of the League of Women Voters.
While a student at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, where she had intended to study history, Ms. Rivlin was inspired by a summer economics course in Bloomington that redirected her ambitions. Then came graduate work at Harvard; marriage to Lewis A. Rivlin, a lawyer; and a move to Washington, where she had won a Brookings fellowship to finish a difficult Ph.D. dissertation on projecting demographic trends, for which she had to rely on rudimentary computer punch cards.
After a brief stint on Capitol Hill at the request of Representative Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the New York Democrat, who headed a select committee on education and labor, Ms. Rivlin was summoned by President Lyndon B. Johnson to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.
There, as assistant secretary for planning and evaluation, she was part of an administration-wide effort to replicate management techniques that had been brought to Washington from the Ford Motor Company by Robert S. McNamara, the defense secretary who served under both Johnson and John F. Kennedy. Mr. McNamara had been president of Ford.
Her appointment to head the newly created Congressional Budget Office in 1975 shoved the soft-spoken, 5-foot-2-inch Ms. Rivlin into the political limelight.
She dined out for years on the tale of her selection. The Senate and the House had each formed committees to select a chief for the budget office, and the Senate panel chose Ms. Rivlin. But another candidate was favored by the House, where Representative Al Ullman, an Oregon Democrat who was chairman of the Budget Committee, was outspokenly opposed to picking a woman.
After months of stalemate, Ms. Rivlin’s fortunes unexpectedly changed when Wilbur D. Mills, the Arkansas Democrat who headed the House Ways and Means Committee, was forced to resign after a highly publicized incident involving alcohol consumption and an Argentine stripper. (She had fled his car and wound up in the Tidal Basin.) Mr. Ullman took Mr. Mills’s post, and his successor on the Budget Committee acceded to the Senate’s choice of Ms. Rivlin. She later liked to say that she owed her job in part to Fanne Foxe, the stripper.