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MY TURN

What you won't hear at the 'town hall meeting'

'From Ayotte, a one-sided debate'

When is a "town hall meeting" not a "town hall meeting?"

When attendance is limited to employees of a self-interested foreign corporation that is playing host to a reverse lobbying event.

The event in question is the "Preserving America's Strength" show being staged by U.S. Sens. Kelly Ayotte, John McCain and Lindsey Graham tomorrow morning at BAE Systems in Merrimack. The senators say they are trying to "sound the alarm" about the economic impact of cuts in military spending if the Pentagon is forced to cut $500 billion from its budget over the next 10 years.

The budget cuts, taken from a 10-year budget of about $5.5 trillion, would be matched by an equal amount of cuts in non-military spending under a process known on Capitol Hill as "sequestration." This would come after a decade in which Pentagon spending has risen by more than 35 percent, even after accounting for inflation and excluding the costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Members of the public are not invited to the "town hall meeting."

That means the senators are not likely to get questions about the job or economic impact of cuts in areas such as housing, nutrition assistance, health care, education, and environmental protection.

Nor are they likely to hear that canceling the Pentagon budget cuts will either mean deeper cuts in human needs programs, higher taxes, continued deficit spending, or some combination of the three.

It's possible that no one present will point out the United States military spending is already almost as much as that of all the other nations of the world combined and that many of the big-spenders among them are our allies.

While cuts in weapons production - not to be confused with cuts in pay or benefits for active duty and retired members of the armed services - would lead to job losses in those industries, a recent report from Sen. Tom Harkin says "the economic effects of cuts to non-defense programs could be worse than cuts to Pentagon spending."

According to Harkin's analysis, sequestration would cut $3.5 million from special education funding in New Hampshire, costing the state 44 jobs and reducing services to infants and children. About $1.2 million in Head Start cuts would cost 41 jobs and eliminate services for 194 more children. Cancer screening for women, low-income heating assistance, family violence prevention, assistance for unemployed workers and dozens of other programs assisting people in New Hampshire would suffer.

Even the Aerospace Industry Association says cuts in non-defense programs would have a more harmful effect on the nation's economy than would cuts in defense spending.

"One billion dollars spent on each of the domestic spending priorities will create substantially more jobs within the U.S. economy than would the same $1 billion spent on the military," according to a recent report from the University of Massachusetts Political Economy Research Institute.

"Dollar for dollar, clean energy and health care support 50 percent more jobs than defense spending, and education supports more than twice as many," says Heidi Garrett-Peltier, co-author of the UMass study. "Cutting the budget for education, then, results in twice as many jobs lost as cutting the budget for defense."

Surely "America's strength" is built on more than just weapons. A strong country requires a strong domestic economy, educated youth, a healthy population, and clean air and water. And a vibrant democracy needs actual public dialogue on pressing issues, not staged road shows by elected officials who are supposed to be working for the people.

(Arnie Alpert is New Hampshire program coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization working for social justice, peace and nonviolent change.)