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Defense advocates' last hope: The sequestration road show

The legislative traffic jam that has paralyzed your elected representatives has a novel cause, if nothing else: They all agree.

Nearly everyone in the military-industrial-congressional complex concurs that this January's automatic, across-the-board budget restrictions are terrible. Republicans and Democrats, Building people and industry boffins, think-tankists and Beltway Bandits -- everybody hates it.

The sticking point, of course, is just how to go about resolving sequestration, and the logjam created by the differences over that question is what has given us another throwaway year: In the middle of May, Hill types are already shaking their heads and talking about postponing major business until 2013.

Virginia Rep. Randy Forbes, who has become one of the House Armed Services Republicans' top public gunslingers, has a plan to try to slice through this Gordian Knot: Get some voters involved. He and his House colleagues say they're planning a dozen town hall meetings around the country billed as "defending our defenders," in which they'll dispense with all the congressional mumbo-jumbo and drop some real talk on Joe and Jane Q. Taxpayer.

Forbes told our eminent colleague Michael Hoffman this weekend that he won't even use the term "sequestration" -- "people don't understand it," he said -- but instead tell voters exactly what about $500 billion in reduced DoD budget growth would mean for their lives. Everyone inside the Iron Triangle knows the talking points from memory: Forfty million Americans out of work; Communist occupation; mass enslavement in China's asteroid mining empire; every bald eagle caged and painted red, and so forth.

But what Forbes and his colleagues are counting on is that most real Americans outside the National Capital Region won't have heard any of it before, and they'll be alarmed enough to make enough noise to unclog the arteries up on the Hill. Forbes planned his first town hall for Monday night in Hampton Roads; the next ones, with the local lawmakers, are planned for San Diego and Pensacola, Fla.

Can it work? From defense advocates' and industry leaders' perspective, it can't hurt, although people whose jobs already depend on the Navy may not need much convincing. Moving the needle on any political issue is difficult, however, which is why President Obama and Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney are going to spend a billion dollars this year battering each other.

It's hard enough to sell the message: "You, voter, take time out of your day and go to a place you probably don't like, then stand in line and deal with weirdos and cast a ballot on behalf of Candidate X." It may be even harder to sell the message: "Hey, voter, make contact with a stranger and explain why you believe Congress should act quickly to undo or at very least postpone the automatic imposition of budget restrictions it enacted last year in order to goad a small committee of its own members to do work all of them agreed was important and address the long-term deficit, restrictions that members now say they didn't believe would be triggered but nonetheless were even though many members in both parties agree they would be disastrous and shouldn't take place, but evidently don't believe so strongly enough to signal their willingness to seriously compromise."

The other problem is that Congress is most responsive to only one kind of appeal: elections. The Congress that Americans sent to Washington in 2010 has proven to be the least popular in history, but it has nonetheless stayed mostly on its original course, the one set by voters who wanted to repudiate Obama and the Democrats. That's why everyone's already shrugging and writing off the rest of this year, even including what South Carolina Democratic Rep. James Clyburn called "the mother of all lame ducks." So emails, phone calls and even protests in the interim might not work.

If, however, the pessimists' pessimists are right and November's elections are close enough to risk a definitive mandate for either side, the voters Forbes and his colleagues are courting now could be the ones to swing the balance.

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