When the Congress elected next week reports to Washington, its members are going to face a mountain of work. Most of it comes from cans that have been kicked down the road for years, or even decades.
The outcome of the White House contest, as well as whether the Democrats retain or even strengthen their majority in the Senate and the Republicans do the same in the House of Representatives, will determine the agenda and the pace.
Some short-term fixes are needed. Both parties say a compromise is required in dealing with the soon-to-expire Bush tax cuts, perhaps in a lame-duck session. But the heavy lifting awaits the 113th Congress. Deficit reduction is getting plenty of lip service in the campaigns, but neither party seems to have a grip on how to deal with an annual budget shortfall that has exceeded $1 trillion for four years in a row. Addressing this in an environment where any cuts in government spending or increases in taxes could deflate the nation's shaky economic recovery will be tricky.
Immigration reform is another battle in which the sides seem intractable, yet the problem cannot be allowed to fester any longer. A path to citizenship, or permanent residency, along with wholesale reforms of the system, will most likely be part of a package that includes doing more to secure our borders and to find and deport illegal immigrants who've committed crimes.
The representatives you choose on Nov. 6 must also confront the unsustainable finances of Medicare and Medicaid. Studies show the average couple pays in about $100,000 to the Medicare fund when working, and will get about $300,000 in services from the program after they turn 65. Is it any surprise the fund is less than 15 years from bankruptcy?
Even Social Security, the most easily fixed of our entitlements, needs modifying to balance its books, and the longer we wait, the harder the fix will be.
To make progress on these daunting issues, our representatives will have to overcome the paralyzing partisanship that has Washington in its grip and the near-certainty that the chambers will be split. Worse, they must contend with a still-stagnant economy and a populace that seems to insist on a level of government benefits and services it's not willing to pay for.
Against this backdrop, voters heading to the polls in the Lower Hudson Valley may be surprised by the results of redistricting.
The once-a-decade redrawing of state and federal election districts that took place earlier this year resulted in a loss of two New York seats in the House, from 29 to 27, due to slower population growth than the rest of the nation. New lines put in place by a federal court -- after the State Legislature failed to work out a nonpartisan map -- has shifted many boundaries, so quite a few voters won't find a familiar incumbent on the ballot.
Take the 16th District, for example, which picks up much of southern Westchester. With the additions of Yonkers, Mount Vernon, New Rochelle, Greenburgh and Scarsdale and the loss of Rockland County, the 16th covers far more of Westchester than in the past decade. And while incumbent Democrat Eliot Engel of the Bronx has already served 12 terms, he may not be as well-known to voters in this newly configured district. He faces newcomer Joe McLaughlin, a Republican from Hastings-on-Hudson.
In the 17th, where Rep. Nita Lowey (D-Harrison) is up against Republican challenger Joe Carvin of Rye Brook, Rockland County is no longer split -- it is included in its entirety in the newly drawn 17th Congressional District.
And the 18th District -- where first-term Republican Nan Hayworth of Bedford is in a battle with Democrat Sean Patrick Maloney of Cold Spring -- covers large parts of several counties, including Westchester, Putnam, Orange and Dutchess. It loses a few cities in Westchester, but picks up others including Middletown, Newburgh and Poughkeepsie.
The point here: Know your candidates before heading out to vote. And when choosing your candidate, consider what you want from this next Congress, and seek the traits in a representative needed to get it. An ability to compromise for the greater good probably tops that list, if we are finally going to solve the worsening problems that have gone unaddressed for so long.