By Senator Mark Begich
One of the biggest problems facing every Alaskan and every American today is out-of-control federal spending.
Today's unprecedented $16.7 trillion national debt -- about $53,000 for every man, woman and child in America -- is irresponsible and acts as an anchor dragging down our economy.
There is plenty of blame to go around in Congress: racking up trillions in borrowing for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a massive new prescription drug program and major tax breaks for most Americans.
Both political parties must work together to get federal spending under control.
That's why in my four years in the U.S. Senate, I've been working to cut the federal budget. I believe budget cuts start with members of Congress, so I've voted against a pay raise for senators three times and am voluntarily returning a portion of my salary to the Treasury.
I've cut my own office budget, saving taxpayers nearly $1 million. As automatic budget cuts kicked in last month affecting most federal agencies and programs, I directed my own staff to take leave-without-pay furloughs.
I've also supported federal balanced budget requirements. Just as we did every year when I was mayor of Anchorage, I believe the federal government must balance its budget.
Despite the size of the problem, we are making some progress. Over the past two years, Congress has reduced the budget deficit by $2.4 trillion, with more than three-fourths coming from spending cuts.
This means for the first time in five years, the yearly deficit will be under $1 trillion, half of the level in 2009 at the depths of the national recession.
Of course, that's not enough. That's why I've been working with senators of both political parties to cut more.
Last month, I pushed for major spending cuts in two budget bills considered by the Senate. The first, an appropriations bill covering the rest of the current budget year, cuts federal spending by nearly $30 billion.
The second, the overall budget blueprint for Fiscal 2014, cuts spending by nearly $1 trillion for the coming year. I proposed and supported billions in additional cuts, such as:
* Preventing millionaires from receiving unemployment benefits;
* Eliminating $400 million for a defense system the Army doesn't need or want;
* Prohibiting bailouts for banks that are "too big to fail;"
* Public disclosure of those who receive a portion of the $9 billion spent annually on farm subsidies.
In the end, I angered my own party leaders by voting against this budget because it didn't go far enough to rein in federal spending.
Beginning in March, automatic budget cuts -- known in Washington-ese as "sequestration" -- kicked in. This means federal spending is being cut at a record rate of $109 billion a year.
While I believe across-the-board cuts are a poor approach to governing, that's where the political stalemate in Washington has left us.
Every American, including Alaskans, is feeling these cuts:
* Fewer federal education dollars for schools, special education and child care;
* Cuts to Coast Guard fisheries law enforcement;
* Reductions to Essential Air Service, which supports transportation to rural communities, and longer lines to get through airport security;
* Thousands of lost civilian and military jobs at our bases.
With the start of the new Congress in January, I was able to secure a seat on the influential Senate Appropriations Committee to better guide future federal budgets. With both Sen. Lisa Murkowski and me on the committee, Alaska couldn't be better positioned.
When Congress resumes later this month, I'll continue pushing for responsible spending cuts while maintaining essential programs and investments to keep our economy growing. People of all political stripes will debate endlessly over the right mix of budget cuts versus necessary investments. But no one will argue that America needs to rein in spending.
I'll work with any of my colleagues -- especially no-nonsense budget cutters like Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma -- to make sure we push spending down while keeping our economic recovery headed upward.
Sen. Mark Begich is in his fifth year as one of Alaska's U.S. senators.