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Mitt Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan, has a reputation as a deficit hawk. He has proposed budgets with steep cuts to nondefense spending, and he wants to save money on Medicare by turning it into a voucher program. But as NPR's John Ydstie reports, critics argue there's a lot in Ryan's record that undermines his deficit hawk reputation.

JOHN YDSTIE, BYLINE: Paul Ryan restated his commitment to debt and deficit reduction before a national audience when the Wisconsin congressman gave the GOP response to President Obama's State of the Union Address in 2011.

PAUL RYAN: We face a crushing burden of debt. The debt will soon eclipse our entire economy and grow to catastrophic levels in the years ahead. On this current path, when my three children, who are now 6, 7 and 8 years old, are raising their own children, the federal government will double in size, and so will the taxes they pay. No economy can sustain such high levels of debt and taxation.

YDSTIE: That same year, deficit-cutting interest groups gave Ryan a fiscal responsibility award after he unveiled a budget plan that included a controversial proposal to curb the rise in Medicare costs. Bob Bixby, head of the Concord Coalition, praised Ryan for embracing a historically unpopular idea and said he thought to himself, quote, "Now, there's a deficit hawk." Despite the praise from the anti-deficit groups, Stan Collender, a longtime federal budget analyst, says Paul Ryan is not a deficit hawk.

STAN COLLENDER: The Paul Ryan budget plans are tax cuts masquerading as deficit reductions. And as his own numbers show, even with optimistic assumptions about revenues that will be raised and revenues that will result from economic growth, he still doesn't balance the budget for 20 years or so.

YDSTIE: Collender, who now works for the PR and lobbying firm Qorvis, does acknowledge Ryan's Medicare plan could reduce costs to the federal government. But, Collender says, throughout his career, Paul Ryan has talked tough on the deficit but supported policies that increase it.

COLLENDER: It includes everything from supporting tax cuts in the Bush administration to proposing big tax cuts that aren't paid for, you know, in his own plan to supporting a war that's not paid for, Medicare Part D plan not paid for, and not standing in the way of it. So his record on deficit reduction is actually quite dismal.

YDSTIE: But Alice Rivlin, the founding director of the Congressional Budget Office, says the criticism of Paul Ryan misses the point.

ALICE RIVLIN: I think you have to distinguish deficit hawk from small-government conservative.

YDSTIE: Rivlin, also the budget director in the Clinton White House and a former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve, says Ryan's primary goal transcends deficit reduction.

RIVLIN: I think of him as a man committed to a smaller government that has less of a role in people's lives - he really believes that - that the government does too much. And he thinks taxes should be less.

YDSTIE: But Rivlin, who's now at the Brookings Institution, says she thinks Ryan's budget plans depend too much on cutting spending that will hurt the needy, like food stamps and Medicaid. Douglas Holtz-Eakin, another former CBO director, says he believes Paul Ryan does deserve the deficit hawk label. But he says...

DOUGLAS HOLTZ-EAKIN: Not all deficit hawks are created equal.

YDSTIE: Holtz-Eakin, who advised John McCain during his presidential campaign, agrees with Alice Rivlin that Ryan is, first of all, a small-government conservative. But Holtz-Eakin says Ryan's approach to deficit reduction is actually quite thoughtful. Ryan has been criticized because his budget proposals take more than two decades to reach balance. Holtz-Eakin argues that slow progress is to be expected if you're addressing entitlement programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

HOLTZ-EAKIN: It's hard to quickly change them. And you make the reforms now, and over time, you get the benefits, but you don't get quick budget reductions that way. To get quick budget reductions, you'd have to do draconian things to those programs that I think would not be politically saleable and actually aren't good policy.

YDSTIE: Holtz-Eakin does express some unease with Ryan's unstinting support for defense spending. He says that what the Bowles-Simpson deficit reduction effort taught us was that there are spending problems everywhere in the budget, and that includes defense. John Ydstie, NPR News, Washington.

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