Vice presidential debate: Did Paul Ryan want $300 million embassy security cut?

In the vice presidential debate Thursday, Joe Biden said a budget written by Rep. Paul Ryan sought a $300 million cut in embassy security. The facts are more nuanced.

Mark Humphrey/AP
Vice President Joe Biden and Republican vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin participate in the vice presidential debate at Centre College Thursday in Danville, Ky.

The Joe Biden-Paul Ryan debate was pretty combative. The veep and the veep nominee clashed repeatedly on foreign affairs, the economy, social issues, and the correct pronunciation of “Kentucky,” the state in which the wrangle was held.

OK, we made up that last one. But doesn’t it seem possible? Given the extent of their disagreements it’s not hard to envision Congressman Ryan insisting “It’s KEN-tucky,” and Biden replying that his father had told him once “Champ, it’s Kin-TUCKY. Don’t let any slicker tell you otherwise.”

As always in these things, both sides tossed out numbers thick and fast. As we’ve often said, numbers in national politics aren’t as fixed as they appear. They can represent guesses, or old assumptions, or predictions that might come true and might not. So we’ll try and put a context around some of the ones that struck us in an effort to make the debate useful to voters who want more than an analysis of facial expressions.

Given this, did Ryan really propose slashing embassy security spending by $300 million?

This came up when the men were dealing with the issue of the tragic attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in which US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other men were killed.

The Romney/Ryan ticket has accused the administration of stinting on embassy security prior to these attacks. In reply, Vice President Biden said the charge was “malarkey.”

“This congressman here cut embassy security in his budget by $300 million below what we asked for, No. 1. So much for the embassy security piece,” said Biden.

The nugget of fact behind this charge is that as chairman of the House Budget Committee, Ryan has submitted a budget blueprint that proposes cutting all nondefense discretionary spending by 19 percent in fiscal 2014. This category includes everything Uncle Sam does that is not an entitlement program, like Social Security, or run by the Pentagon, or interest on the debt.

Taking almost 1 of every 5 dollars away from programs in this area means something that many voters think is important is likely to get hit hard. But Ryan’s budget was an overall plan. It didn’t allocate that cut line item by line item. It’s possible that embassy security might have been saved at the expense of something else, like Environmental Protection Agency enforcement.

So Ryan didn’t propose cutting embassy security spending, literally (and we do mean literally, Mr. Vice President) speaking. Appropriations committee staff members would have had the hard task of carving up the budget bit by bit. Or they would have if Ryan’s proposal had become law, which it didn’t.

So to sum up, this charge involves extrapolating otherwise-unprovided details from a larger number that itself doesn’t have the force of law. But its underlying truth is that it is impossible to substantially reduce the federal deficit without cutting out stuff that’s important to the functions of the US government, if entitlements and defense are left untouched.

The two presidential tickets have a lot to say about the funding of entitlements, of course. But that’s a subject for another post.

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