Once upon a time, Social Security was considered the "third rail" of American politics. The "third rail" is the train track that carries the high-voltage power; touching it means instant death.
The "third rail" metaphor has for decades been applied to Social Security, a government program so popular with the American public that proposing any changes in it would mean political death to the politician.
No more. Although Social Security is as popular as ever, politicians routinely propose changes in the program -- including privatization and means testing. While the proposals usually go nowhere, and rightly so, the politicians who support them live to fight another day. Today, with those massive deficits and the astronomical national debt, not even Social Security is sacrosanct.
Few, if any, government programs are.
But U.S. aid to Israel is. In fact, the $3 billion Israel aid package is the new third rail of American politics: touch it and die. It is also the one program which liberals, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans and tea partiers all agree should not sustain even a dollar in cuts.
Actually, that is something of a misstatement. These various parties and factions do not agree that the $3 billion Israel aid package is sacred. They just say that they do because a powerful lobby, AIPAC, makes clear to them that touching the aid package will mean big trouble for them in the next election.
It no longer comes as much of a surprise that the average Democrat and Republican rules Israel aid cuts off the table -- while supporting cuts in programs like Head Start, which educates poor children, or WIC, which provides nutrition assistance to disadvantaged women and their infants.
It is not a surprise because everyone knows that the Democratic and Republican campaign finance committees warn their members of the dire consequences that might ensue if they dare to stand up to the lobby.
That is why even the most liberal members of Congress never point out the absurdity of supporting full funding of military aid to Israel while cutting vital domestic programs. (In fact, the only members of Congress who have suggested that Israel share some of the sacrifice are Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) and his son, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) who would pretty much cut every program in the budget, including Israel aid.)
But the two Pauls, all by themselves, were enough to send a scare to AIPAC so that it immediately got to work to make sure that other like-minded Republicans (the "cut everything" caucus) did not go off and follow them in the name of, say, logic and consistency.
AIPAC was most concerned about the Republican first-termers, most of whom were elected with the support of tea partiers, extreme fiscal conservatives who tend not to favor any exemptions from the budget ax.
Almost immediately, AIPAC produced a letter for the Republican first-termers to sign in which they pledged that, no matter what else they cut, Israel would be exempt. And almost immediately, 65 of the 87 Republican freshmen signed on. (More signed on later). Among the signatories are some of the most vehement supporters of cutting virtually every domestic program. These are people who support cutting jobs in their own districts and proudly point to their devotion to the principle that shared sacrifice means everyone.
But not Israel.
The AIPAC letter seems to recognize that virtually every other program is sustaining cuts. It refers to "runaway spending and trillion dollar deficits." It even concedes that "tough choices must be made to control federal spending" and that "we must do a better job of prioritizing appropriations." (Those priorities can be seen in this list of draconian budget cuts the freshmen support.)
But then this: "Therefore, as this Congress considers the upcoming Continuing Resolution, we strongly urge you [the House leadership] to include America's full $3 billion commitment for Fiscal Year 2011 under the ten-year Us-Israel Memorandum of Understanding."
And that is where fiscal hawks become the most docile of doves: when it comes to Israel.
This is not to say that the United States should eliminate military aid to Israel. Much of the aid package can be justified on the grounds that Israel is an ally, one that still has enemies bent on its destruction. But how can anyone justify picking this one program out of the entire federal budget and saying, without discussion, that it merits full funding, without scrutiny, while virtually every other program is cut?
The simple fact is that both the United States and Israel would be better off if we attached strings to our aid (as we do with other foreign assistance programs). For instance, we might say that for every dollar Israel spends on expanding settlements, we will subtract one dollar from the aid package. Or we can put the whole package on hold until Israel agrees to freeze settlements, thereby enabling negotiations with the Palestinians to resume. Or we can simply examine the aid budget, item by item, to make sure that each program in it supports U.S. policy goals. (Do those U.S.-provided cluster bombs that are still exploding in Lebanon serve our interests?)
But we do none of that. Israel prepares a shopping list and Congressional appropriators provide the goods. Shop 'till you drop.
This is wrong. Congress should treat the Israel aid package the same way it deals with programs that benefit Americans. Those who support it should be forced to defend it, line by line.
But the sad fact is that special interests like AIPAC, the Chamber of Commerce and the Club for Growth intimidate Congress into exempting their favorite projects even from discussion. Aid to Israel will not even be discussed this year, except to the extent that Members of Congress inform AIPAC of their utter devotion to keeping the money flowing.
If only infants, working Americans, and the poor were somebody's special interest. Maybe then, someday, they too could intimidate Congress. As the old Jewish expression goes: We should all live so long.