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The most expensive, contentious presidential campaign in U.S. history is behind us now — until the next one begins in about two years. As a second-term president, Barack Obama becomes a lame duck as soon as he palms the Bible and takes the oath anew on the Capitol steps in January. He will face a Congress still divided — Republicans in control of the House, Democrats the Senate.
Both the president and House leaders vow to reach across the aisle to try and solve problems, as they do after every election. But is this likely in a nation still hopelessly divided?
The election results again show how split the U.S. is: swaths of red and blue states separated by ideology, geography and demographics, the voting pie sliced up by race, gender, class and age. We can’t agree on one way to govern in a nation that has somehow grown further apart even as technology and transportation have pushed us closer together.
So where to start? Well, if the quest for common ground is a hard slog, let’s go for some low-hanging fruit to get the ball rolling. We have a few suggestions.
Today, we celebrate our veterans in a day set aside each Nov. 11 to honor those who wear and have worn the uniforms of our nation’s military. As those who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam grow grayer, their children and grandchildren are coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, some after years of combat deployment. Many return scarred, physically and mentally, by the toils of war, as were the generations before them.
The U.S. has a system of veterans benefits and hospitals to offer care, but as the nation’s two longest wars end, its budget will be strained by thousands returning from battle. Funding for veterans’ needs has been increased in recent years, yet there remains a backlog in processing benefit claims, and that must be addressed.
At the state level, Gov. Nathan Deal has launched an initiative to help the some 80,000 returning Georgia vets and their spouses adjust to civilian jobs. One part of that will expedite licensing for vets who want to drive commercial vehicles; trucking is a growing industry in need of drivers, and such a plan can help match a workforce supply with demand.
If the nation can spend billions fighting wars to free oppressed people half a world away, it can spend a fraction of that caring for those who waged that fight, and who left so much of themselves behind in the desert sands. Elected officials at every level should make benefits and care for homebound troops a priority, and fund veterans services fully. For those who have sacrificed so much of their own lives, we can find the money.
And here’s another item everyone should be able to agree on: Our voting system is a mess and in need of repair.
On Election Day, many Americans faced lengthy delays, some unable to vote at all, when election offices in some areas were overwhelmed by high turnout and even ran out of ballots. That was the case in Fulton County, where some were unable to cast ballots because of faulty registration procedures. Problems in that county have mounted with each election.
And it was even worse in ... surprise ... Florida’s Palm Beach County, home of the famous butterfly ballot and “hanging chad” recount from the 2000 election. Some people there were in line for hours and didn’t get to vote until after the presidential race was called after midnight.
This is unacceptable. High voter turnout should be welcomed, not used as an excuse for incompetence. Voting offices should prepare for 100 percent of registered voters to show up and have a ballot for everyone. And, ideally, all states should go to the type of computer-based system Georgia now uses that eliminates the need for bulky printed ballots and a mid-20th century method of counting them.
More importantly, trained professionals need to be in charge of election offices. That clearly isn’t the case everywhere.
Granted, improving our voting process nationwide will be expensive. Some states need new and more equipment to handle their growing populations. Better training of election workers will tax local budgets.
But this, too, is a no-brainer. If Americans are unable to vote in a reliable way, no other dollar we spend on government much matters. The voting process is the very starting point of our democratic freedom and can’t be handled on the cheap.
As the federal government heads toward that “fiscal cliff” that has all of D.C. fretting, the debate over what should be cut from the bloated federal budget is long overdue. Our nation cannot survive by continuing to spend money it doesn’t have, particularly on dubious “needs” and additional entitlements.
But within that debate, identifying what is important and worth full funding is just as vital. We just flagged two that should earn bipartisan support: Veterans services and election reform. If our leaders can’t agree on those as priorities, they can’t agree on anything.
Mr. President and Mr. Speaker, we have given you a couple of obvious problems you can tackle together. Now get to work.