January 19, 2009 1:28PM

How to Break the Grip of Lobbyists

James Q. Wilson, reviewing Robert Kaiser’s new book So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government, explains how we could — but won’t — break the power of lobbyists:

Or one could do what would make the greatest difference: reduce federal spending programs of the sort that create incentives for lobbyists to expand them. The central reason earmarks developed in the 1970s is that by then Washington was trying to solve so many problems that it appropriated money for virtually everything.

Kaiser acknowledges that this is the problem. He notes that politicians, both liberal and conservative, have produced “a more intrusive government, more important to the well‐​being of more Americans.” The more groups saw “their own fate at stake in Washington’s debates on public policy, the better the market for lobbyists,” he writes.

But reducing the extent of government activity is only slightly more likely than amending the Constitution. It may be better to step back and ask, “Do American voters dislike Washington because it is corrupt, or do they dislike it because it is ineffective in solving the problems (some real, some only imagined) that it has embraced?”

When the federal agenda did not include agriculture, the environment, drug abuse, gun control, academic research, mortgages, homelessness and school quality — and that was during Kaiser’s lifetime and mine — it was hard to have an earmark because there were few programs to which they could be attached. And that was also the time when the great majority of Americans thought national officials were doing a good job.