Susan and Gerald Howson, of Des Moines, participated in an event in which Smith invites lawmakers, administration officials, political operatives and media figures to talk directly with voters from his district.

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WASHINGTON — Susan and Gerald Howson flew 3,000 miles for a one-of-a-kind civics lesson.

The Des Moines couple joined about 100 others at the Library of Congress on Thursday for the 12th annual 9th District Day hosted by their congressman, Tacoma Democrat Adam Smith.

The Howsons listened raptly as an aide to U.S. Sen. Patty Murray described the looming showdown over $1.2 trillion in automatic-spending cuts called sequestration.

They heard Sen. John McCain, of Arizona, make the case for aiding Syrian rebels attempting to topple the Bashar Assad regime, Sen. Mark Begich, of Alaska, discuss tsunami debris drifting from Japan to American shores and Sen. Maria Cantwell vow to resurrect the Glass-Steagall Act’s separation between commercial and investment banking — and that was just before lunch.

“Every year, I feel better about government,” said Susan Howson, an Alaska Airlines reservations employee who was attending 9th District Day for the ninth time. “I’ve come to respect what they’re trying to do.”

According to Smith, that’s one of the ideas behind “constituent day.” Over the years, Smith has invited lawmakers, administration officials, political operatives and media figures to talk directly with voters from his district.

“That’s the whole point of the representative process,” said Smith, who is running for a ninth term in November.

Smith may be the only one of 435 House members to hold such an event. That probably helps in snagging big-name speakers. Thursday’s lineup included Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, NBC News correspondent Luke Russert and Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter.

Smith makes a point of asking Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner and California Rep. Buck McKeon, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, where Smith is the top Democrat. Smith usually has some relationship with those he invites. But not always. ABC News’ anchor George Stephanopoulos showed up one year, Smith said, after “we just asked.”

Most of the audience hailed from Smith’s district, which encompasses Tacoma, SeaTac, Federal Way, Seattle, Bellevue and Redmond, according to his staff. Some were already in town for other business. That included a contingent of Washington Council on International Trade members, including officials from the ports of Seattle and Tacoma and the Washington State Potato Commission.

The speakers checked off a list of resolved issues facing Congress. Both the Bush-era tax cuts and the payroll-tax holiday expire at the end of this year. Whether to again allow a sales-tax deduction for Washington and other states without income taxes remains in limbo.

The House and the Senate can’t come to terms on even once-routine highway spending. Significant reductions to defense and nondefense programs will kick in next year unless Democrats and Republicans pre-empt them with a fresh agreement on spending cuts and additional revenue.

Fixing all of that, the speakers agreed, will take something much uttered but seldom displayed in Congress: bipartisanship.

Susan Howson has seen how partisan politics can be a hurdle for individual lawmakers. She recalled Rep. Dave Reichert, a Republican from Auburn, showing up at Smith’s event a couple of years ago.

“They were trying to come together, but the parties were preventing them,” she said.

Kyung Song: 202-662-7455 or ksong@seattletimes.com