San Jose Mercury News

Two vastly different visions of how the government should spend its money were introduced in Congress this past week -- and one of them has Bay Area roots.

Most of the national buzz was about the "Path to Prosperity" plan put forth Tuesday by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis. It's a conservative blueprint that would reshape Medicare; make deep cuts to Medicaid, food stamps and other programs for the poor; and cut the top tax rates paid by the wealthy and corporations. Republicans say it would erase deficits and balance the budget by 2040.

Then there's the Ryan plan's photo negative: the "Budget for All" plan unveiled Wednesday by the Congressional Progressive Caucus and its budget task-force chairman, Rep. Mike Honda, D-Campbell.

"Ryan's bill sort of grips everybody around the neck -- he's going for the jugular," Honda said. "Only the upper 1 or 2 percent and oil companies, those who've enjoyed the benefits of Republican leadership, will continue to do so. "We, on the other hand, are trying to keep our finger on the pulse."

Honda's plan includes "$2.4 trillion in job-creating investments." It not only would end the Bush-era tax cuts, but also create new tax brackets for millionaires and billionaires in keeping with the "Buffett rule." Named after multibillionaire Warren Buffett -- who's pushing the agenda -- the rule posits that the nation's richest shouldn't pay a lower percentage of income in taxes than less-affluent Americans. It ends what critics call "corporate welfare" for fossil-fuel industries, includes public funding of election campaigns and provides more aid to homeowners facing foreclosure.

Representatives of Ryan's budget committee didn't return emails or a phone call seeking comment on Honda's budget plan.

Even without a presidential election this year, neither plan would have a snowflake's chance in Hades of passing as is.

The budget plan Ryan put forth last year was jammed through the Republican-controlled House by the GOP leadership but was dead on arrival in the Democratic-controlled Senate. And last year's progressive caucus plan failed on a 77-347 vote, with Honda and fellow Bay Area lawmakers Barbara Lee, Pete Stark, George Miller and Lynn Woolsey among the "ayes."

The two plans are the extremes, the goal posts between which someone might eventually kick a successful budget plan. President Obama's plan, issued in February, falls between these two but is certainly closer to Honda's: tax hikes for the rich, military spending cuts and more investment in education, public works, research and clean energy.

"Budgets are not just accounting documents; they're also documents about philosophy. And what you have here are philosophies from almost the two ends of the spectrum, left and right," said UC Berkeley public-policy professor John Ellwood, an expert in the politics of the budgetary process who served on the staffs of the Congressional Budget Office and the U.S. Senate Budget Committee.

Ultimately, he said, Ryan and the Republicans are being less honest about the consequences of their proposed cuts, while Honda and the Democrats are being less honest about the costs of their spending. This is particularly true when it comes to health care, a major driver of government spending that accounts for a world-topping 17.5 percent of the nation's gross domestic product, he said.

With Americans patently unwilling to pay for the level of government services they've become accustomed to, both parties are likely to "play fear" for this year's election, "and nothing's going to happen until after the election," Ellwood said.

Honda is OK with being on the political edge.

"We want people to know these goal posts are out there, that there are choices Congress has to make that will determine the future of this country," he said, adding that he believes his plan "embodies the best ideals and values that don't forsake the people of this country. It's fair and it's thoughtful and it's responsible to a lot of the polls out there over the past year on what people are needing, thinking and feeling."

He said redistributing the tax burden to capture more from America's wealthiest -- and making massive investments in infrastructure, education and economic development -- would go a long way toward addressing the income inequality that his caucus has been decrying for years and was pushed into the nation's consciousness last fall by the Occupy movement.

The Ryan plan, Honda said, "seems like an experiment of grand proportions that only looks at programs as if they were laboratory rats. It's a pretty stark difference. If people knew what the choices were, I think they'd say, 'Jesus, the progressive caucus budget looks pretty good.' "