WASHINGTON – Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan is a fiscal conservative, champion of small government and critic of federal handouts. But as a congressman in Wisconsin, Ryan lobbied for tens of millions of dollars on behalf of his constituents for the kinds of largess he's now campaigning against, according to an Associated Press review of 8,900 pages of correspondence between Ryan's office and more than 70 executive branch agencies.
For 12 years in the House, Ryan wrote to federal agencies supporting expansion of food stamps in his Wisconsin district. He supported city officials and everyday constituents who sought stimulus grants, federally guaranteed business loans, grants to invest in green technology and money under the health care law he opposes.
On the campaign trail, Ryan has called those kinds of handouts big-government overreaching. He tells crowds he supports smaller government and rails against what he calls President Barack Obama's wasteful spending, including the president's $800 billion stimulus program. Ryan renewed his criticism about stimulus spending in Thursday night's vice presidential debate.
"Was it a good idea to spend taxpayer dollars on electric cars in Finland or on windmills in China?" Ryan said. "Was it a good idea to borrow all this money from countries like China and spend it on all these various different interest groups?"
Yet the AP's review of Ryan's congressional correspondence showed that he sought stimulus funding on behalf of residents and at one point told federal regulators that cutting a stimulus grant in his district at the 11th hour would be "economically devastating."
Vice President Joe Biden cited during the debate Ryan's letters seeking stimulus money: "I love that. This was such a bad program, and he writes me a letter saying, writes the Department of Energy a letter saying, 'The reason we need this stimulus, it will create growth and jobs.' His words. And now he's sitting here looking at me," Biden said.
Much of Ryan's correspondence is similar to other lawmakers performing constituent duties, describing problems that residents have reported. They include requests such as assisting a family missing airline baggage and helping a man who didn't receive a pancake maker he had ordered.
But in other correspondence, Ryan explicitly supports programs and encourages federal agencies to take actions. He supported in his congressional letters some Wisconsin farms' share of an $11.8 million loan guarantee but later criticized other loan guarantees, such as the $535 million loan that went to now-defunct solar panel maker Solyndra. He asked transportation officials for a grant for green technology and alternative fuels, although his proposed budget as House budget chairman called loans for electric car development "corporate welfare."
He's also supported federal money to help a Kenosha, Wis., community center cover health care costs of low-income families under Obama's health care reform law – the very program he and Romney say they will repeal if they win the White House.
Ryan spokesman Brendan Buck said AP's findings represented a member of Congress helping people in his district. "Part of being a congressman is vouching for constituents and helping them navigate the federal bureaucracy when asked," he said.
Among the ways Ryan went to bat for his constituents, as detailed in his correspondence:
• A Kenosha community center's grant proposal under the Food Stamps Access Research program, to educate families about the nutritional benefits of food stamps. Ryan said in a 2002 letter the program would increase the enrollment of eligible individuals in the program by providing laptop computers to pre-screen applicants. Ryan's budget proposed cutting food stamps by $134 billion over 10 years, although his spokesman said he "has always made clear we need a strong safety net."
• Letters offering support or forwarding requests for projects funded by stimulus money. Ryan's May 2009 letter to a regional Environmental Protection Agency office asked for its "full consideration" in awarding grant money to an organization under the National Clean Diesel Funding Assistance Program, which reduces diesel emissions.
Ryan also wrote to the EPA in 2009 on behalf of a small town trying to secure $550,000 in stimulus money for utility repairs. Ryan, whose staff requested meetings with the EPA about the matter, said the rescinding of the grant "would be economically devastating" to Sharon, Wis., since it already began spending the money. The EPA said project costs were incurred before October 2008, making the project ineligible for stimulus cash. Ryan has also voiced support for millions in EPA grant money to clean up abandoned building sites in Wisconsin towns.
• A 2002 Agriculture Department loan guarantee to develop a pork-packing and processing plant for farms in the region, including some in his district. The new factory appeared to be "state of the art" and worthy of funding, he said, adding: "It is my hope that the USDA will reach a favorable decision" on the application for a 60 percent federal loan guarantee toward a $19.7 million loan.
• A Kenosha health center's request to use money under Obama's new health care law to help meet health care needs of "thousands of new patients" who lack coverage. Ryan's December 2010 letter to the Health and Human Services Department, first reported by the Nation magazine and also obtained by the AP, appears at odds with his pledge to repeal "Obamacare."
• Support for a grant for the Historical Society in Milton, Wis., from the National Park Service for $271,000 in order to preserve a Civil War-era home. Ryan supported the plan in 2002, saying historical artifacts inside the former transfer point for slaves "have aged to a point where aggressive preservation and restoration is needed to save them." Meanwhile, he's supported recent cuts to the federal budget that would invariably affect national parks.
The AP obtained requested documents from nearly every executive branch agency, although many have been slow to provide any relevant files. Some Obama administration agencies declined AP's request to quickly turn over materials even though they involve an election that's just weeks away.