My turn: Election message is simple: Get nation back on track or step aside

Posted: Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The political pundits are having a field day reading the tea leaves from last week's election. To me, there isn't much confusion over voters' message: elected officials are on a short leash and if we fail to produce, look for another job after the next election.

That blunt message may be tough to hear for someone in my line of work, but it's hardly new. Two years ago, Democrats were swept into the White House and Congress by unprecedented numbers.

The message voters sent then was fix the economic crisis which skyrocketed joblessness and eroded retirement accounts.

We made solid progress: passing legislation creating or saving 3 million jobs, provided tax cuts for 95 percent of working households, created incentives to expand small businesses and assisted with fulfilling the American dream of owning your own home.

Yet, even with the stock market at a two-year peak and the economy growing steadily, voters and national office-holders alike remain plagued by persistent high unemployment and justifiable concerns with federal spending.

I believe voters also are frustrated with arcane Senate procedures, where broadly supported legislation and essential presidential appointees are blocked by a handful of senators, including some who even refuse to identify themselves.

That's why nearly 70 members of Congress lost their jobs on Election Day, including some catapulted into office by the last great reform wave following the Watergate scandal.

As we often do, Alaskans bucked national trends, opting largely for the status quo. Despite all the noise in the U.S. Senate race, much of it generated by special interest group spending, voter turnout was the lowest in more than a decade, just 41 percent. That's 10 percent less than in recent gubernatorial elections and a quarter less than the 66 percent turnout generated by the excitement of the 2008 presidential election.

With our economy in better shape than most states, Alaskans largely re-elected incumbents, retaining the balance of power in the State Legislature, governor's office and congressional delegation.

Always the optimist, I believe a new national agenda of creating jobs, fiscal reform and greater accountability will serve Alaska well. Here's the agenda I advocate for the new Congress:

Create jobs. With a comprehensive national energy bill unlikely, we must reignite our domestic energy industry by opening new areas, including Alaska's Arctic offshore regions, to increased oil and gas development. America's single biggest jobs-creating project is Alaska's natural gas pipeline, so Congress must increase loan guarantees to backstop the gasline.

Reduce the debt. The bipartisan national debt commission will issue recommendations by Dec. 1 on ways to reduce the $13 trillion national debt. Every proposal, from program cuts to tax increases, is likely to be politically painful but courage and sacrifice by all is essential for our long-term economic prosperity. One area off-limits is veterans' benefits and support for our military.

Simplify taxes. To continue our economic recovery, we must extend middle class tax cuts set to expire Dec. 31. Let's also reform and simplify our tax code, which has 10,000 sections and costs Americans and businesses $200 billion a year to comply. I'll keep pushing a bipartisan Tax Fairness and Simplification Act which reduces tax brackets to just three and enables most taxpayers to file a one-page form.

Reform schools. Nothing will make our economy stronger than well-educated Americans trained for 21st century jobs. The one-size-fits-all No Child Left Behind doesn't work in Alaska where more than a third of high school students don't graduate. We must overhaul our education system by encouraging local innovation and more emphasis on science, math and technology.

Fix a broken Congress. Now that Republicans will control the House, they'll no longer have the luxury of being the "Party of No." Republicans used arcane rules to block Senate action on both legislation and presidential appointees. Let's reform Senate procedures to force business into the daylight and prevent abuse of delay tactics.

After hearing voters loud and clear, now's the time to capitalize on pledges from both parties to share the responsibility to get our country back on track.

• Begich is a U.S. Senator from Alaska.

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