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, local voters heading to the polls 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.
While the 1st District battle between longtime incumbent Democrat Tim Bishop and repeat Republican challenger Randy Altschuler features boundaries that haven't changed much, other districts are dramatically different. Many voters who previously had Peter King, Steve Israel, Carolyn McCarthy or Gary Ackerman as their representative may be surprised.
Ackerman is retiring, and King, Israel and McCarthy's districts have shifted. There are now three congressional districts that are wholly made up of Long Islanders, while two districts also reach into Queens. The 3rd District stretches along the North Shore from Smithtown to Whitestone, and the 5th District, which had been only in Queens, now finds 12 percent of its voters in western Nassau County, including Valley Stream and Elmont. 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.