Left, Right Unveil US Budget Utopias

Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., speaks about the 2014 Budget Resolution during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 12, 2013. Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo

Budgets are like dreams.

When conservative House Republicans and liberal Democrats in the House Progressive Caucus each released their broad budget plans this week, what we really saw was a window into two drastically different visions of the future.

Republicans, led by Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, issued a 91-page doctrine of fiscal conservatism that claims to balance the budget in 10 years. The House Progressive Caucus, led by Reps. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., and Keith Ellison, D-Minn., released their own 19-page blueprint that lowers the deficit (but doesn't eliminate it) by raising taxes while pumping investments into all the infrastructure, education, and public welfare programs liberals love.

It's a tale of two budgets, and America's alternate futures couldn't be more different.

In the future according to Paul Ryan, most people take some kind of a hit, and the government survives to serve future generations because it's restrained in the near term. Tax reform lowers rates on people and corporations (including high incomes) while stripping out deductions and credits. National defense remains fully funded, but Medicare is essentially voucherized for people turning 55 now; Medicare survives and health-care costs are restrained, as patients turn down unnecessary procedures, saving the system from fiscal ruin.

Medicare is block-granted, giving states more flexibility to do with the funds as they please. "Obamacare" is repealed, meaning no one has to buy health insurance, but also that the government spends a lot less helping people buy it. Tort reform means doctors don't get sued as often, the government only gives welfare to people meeting the full set of work requirements; job-training programs and "career scholarships" help people get to work, and the federal government accounts more accurately for the money it loans out.

If Ryan has his way, the federal government works in a streamlined and sustainable fashion, balancing its books in 10 years and saving basic services from bankruptcy so that future generations can enjoy them.

The liberal vision looks quite different.

In the future according to the House Progressive Caucus, the Bush tax cuts expire for everyone making over $250,000, and millionaires and billionaires see their tax rates jump from 45 percent. The federal government invests more in infrastructure, creating jobs, and unemployment claims can be made for almost two years (99 weeks). A public-option health system is adopted, while no benefits are cut in Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security. Generic drugs become more available, as name-brand drug companies are barred from paying generic makers to delay sales in patent settlements.

States receive more money through block grants to hire police, firefighters, and teachers, and states also get more money for Medicaid. A new cap-and-trade system limits greenhouse-gas emissions on a large scale. Corporate tax credits that can benefit oil and gas production are rolled back. America swiftly withdraws from Afghanistan, eliminating emergency war funding and saving billions from the federal budget, while the military cuts contractors, spends less on bases, and slowly shrinks its force through attrition.

The progressive budget promises $4.4 trillion in deficit reduction largely by raising taxes and ending the war in Afghanistan. Government services are not only maintained, they're widely expanded, and the federal government continues to run an aggregate $4.2 trillion deficit over the next 10 years, vs. Paul Ryan's $1.2 trillion.

All of those things really are included in both these budget blueprints. Neither one of them will come true.

In fact, almost none of the most drastic parts are likely to happen. Given the makeup of Congress, the prospects for cap-and-trade, voucherizing Medicare, the public option, and repealing "Obamacare" are all about the same. Which is to say, neither House progressives nor House Republicans will get their way.

These two documents represent the poles of what is possible. The House is America's epicenter of drastic partisan divide. Republicans in the House are very fiscally conservative; the House Progressive Caucus, the Democratic Party's most liberal wing, is very liberal when it comes to spending on infrastructure and services.

Over the next 10 years, Republicans and Democrats will agree on something in the middle.

These two visions also show us just how vastly different liberals and conservatives see the future, and how hard it will be for them to agree on anything that makes both sides happy.