Change Washington? It will never happen

I saw a poll recently that indicated 44 percent of Americans think a president can influence some issues, but the public is less certain that a president can influence how things really work in Washington.

I'm delighted we still have some idealists in our nation. I consider myself an idealist. But on this question, I'm with the 44 percent.

I would remind those among the remaining 56 percent that, having been there and done that as a member of Congress for eight years, I regretfully believe it will be difficult, if not impossible, to change Washington regardless of who the president is.

Please take your seats, class, as I give you a lesson in Washington 101. This isn't pretty.

First, we have an appropriations process that, by its very definition, is designed to spend money, not save money.

Ap?pro?pri?a?tionn.A legislative act authorizing the expenditure of a designated amount of public funds for a specific purpose.

The key word here is "expenditure." You will never hear of any group in America that receives appropriated dollars saying to any member of Congress, "Don't give me as much money this year as you gave last year," or "It's OK with me if you reduce my appropriations by 3 percent from last year."

Not going to happen. I've never seen any group -- liberal or conservative -- that receives government money show such magnanimity.

Add to that equation the legion of lobbyists who are paid millions of dollars every year to protect labor and corporate interests and make sure their clients' appropriations maintain an upward trajectory.

Second, Washington plays a legalistic game of politics whereby the Left and the Right expect their candidates to stay in a certain box. If they venture out of their box, they become impure and unacceptable to their respective political gods.

I still cannot reconcile how some conservatives overlook Sen. John McCain as a presidential candidate in favor of Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani when McCain has a lifetime record of being anti-pork, pro-life and pro-marriage, while Giuliani and Romney have histories of supporting abortion and same-sex marriage, while remaining largely mute on the subject of pork for most of the presidential campaign.

Could it be that McCain is not as interested in protecting their deal?

Liberals and conservatives raise millions of dollars on push-button issues like life, marriage and tax cuts on the right; and choice, same sex marriage or higher taxes on the left. Money doesn't flow into their coffers if these issues are resolved.

A final reason I find myself firmly ensconced in the 44 percent category is the fact that 65 percent of the money spent in Washington is mandatory spending. It is generously called "entitlement" spending.

The entitlement mentality is killing our government.

That means that 65 cents of every dollar we spend is on auto-pilot. It will be spent on 35- to 40-year-old models of delivering government services that are terribly outdated, wasteful and inefficient. But they are sacred-cow programs that few Republicans or Democrats are willing to touch.

Until we have the political courage to take on mandatory spending reforms -- which not many presidents are going to be willing to do -- there will never be change.

President Bush took a stab at reforming Social Security and got stabbed right back by Republicans and Democrats alike. So we continue to waste good money in bad models of delivery.

The change we hear parties proposing won't happen. Trust me. It will be status quo as usual. We will get change in January 2009 simply because our president and vice president will not be named Bush or Cheney. The names and faces will change, but what else?

Changing wasteful government spending and changing unproductive, inefficient government programs won't happen. It is easier said than done. A president has 535 members of Congress that he or she will deal with. I remind you of what George Mitchell, Senate majority leader in 1992, said after Bill Clinton was elected president. A pundit asked the senator about all the things Clinton said he would do when sworn in. Mitchell looked straight into the camera, without cracking a smile, and observed "he (Clinton) is not a king."

Indeed, all this talk about change is wonderful and inspiring. Really making change happen is something different altogether.

J.C. Watts ( is chairman of J.C. Watts Companies, a business consulting group. He is former chairman of the Republican Conference of the U.S. House, where he served as an Oklahoma representative from 1995 to 2002. He writes twice monthly for the Review-Journal.