The First Republican Presidential Debate: Examining the Push to Eliminate Federal Departments
The first Republican presidential debate is fast approaching on Aug. 23, when candidates will hope to close the gap on former President Donald Trump and separate from the rest of the pack. In this series, Up For Debate, the Washington Examiner will look at a key issue or policy every day up until debate day and where key candidates stand. Today’s story will examine eliminating federal departments.
A Famous Debate Gaffe and the Idea of Scrapping Government Agencies
One of the most famous debate gaffes in recent memory concerned which federal departments a Republican candidate wanted to eliminate.
Then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry was listing the three agencies he wanted to scrap — or trying to. After rattling off the departments of Commerce and Education, he struggled to find the third, which was later revealed to be the Department of Energy.
“Oops,” he said, in a moment credited with ending his 2012 run.
But it was probably inevitable that there would be at least one viral moment involving a Republican and the idea of scrapping government agencies. The concept is embedded within conservative small-government principles and is a perennial favorite for GOP hopefuls — though departments rarely get canned even when a Republican wins.
This cycle’s crop of GOPers is no exception, proposing to slash a host of departments ranging from perennial favorite Department of Education all the way to the 161-year-old Internal Revenue Service. Here’s where some of the top candidates stand.
The 45th president called for slashing 19 independent federal agencies during his term in the White House, and like other recent Republican presidents was unsuccessful.
In fact, the last significant moves in this space came during the presidency of Democrat Bill Clinton. Newt Gingrich and the Republican-led Congress helped eliminate the Office of Technology Assessment and the Interstate Commerce Commission in the mid-1990s, though neither was a Cabinet-level department.
Recent Republican presidents have been more likely to create new agencies than eliminate them. Ronald Reagan created the Department of Veterans Affairs in 1988, while George W. Bush formed the Department of Homeland Security in 2002.
Trump put forward a budget that would have zeroed out funding for well over a dozen smaller, sub-Cabinet-level agencies, including the National Endowment for the Arts and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation.
The Republican-controlled Congress had skeptics, and none got defunded. Trump also placed Perry in charge of the Department of Energy, the one he infamously forgot to name in 2011.
Trump’s team did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
DeSantis is building a reputation as a policy wonk and made waves last month by calling to eliminate the IRS.
The Florida governor told Fox News host Martha MacCallum he wants to eliminate the Perry trio of Energy, Commerce, and Education, then surprised her by also mentioning the IRS.
“Eliminate the IRS?” she asked.
He then explained further.
“What I’m also going to do, Martha, is be prepared if Congress won’t go that far,” DeSantis said. “I’m going to use those agencies to push back against woke ideology and against the leftism that we see creeping into all institutions of American life.”
As an example, DeSantis said he’d reverse “all the transgender sports stuff” at the Education Department, even if the agency itself lives on. “Either way, it will be a win for conservatives,” he added. Like many conservatives, he believes education policy should be handled at the state and local levels.
Eliminating a federal agency would be transformative. The IRS alone employs nearly 80,000 people, while the Commerce Department employs more than 47,000. The departments of Energy and Education combined have a workforce of about 20,000.
DeSantis isn’t the first to target the IRS. Republican nominee Bob Dole vowed during his 1996 presidential run to abolish the IRS, but he did not get the chance after losing to Clinton. Getting such a proposal past Congress would be tricky at best, even if DeSantis wins the White House.
Previously, DeSantis had said he would take on the federal bureaucracy by moving some agencies outside of Washington, D.C., where he said too much power is concentrated.
The South Carolina Senator has proposed eliminating political appointments in the Department of Justice to address what Republicans describe as a two-tiered system of law enforcement. He also wants to reform “the bones” of the FBI to address that agency’s shortcomings.
“When the culture is so corrosive and so toxic, you have to purge out that culture to restore confidence,” he told Breitbart.
Like DeSantis, Scott would also like to decentralize the government in locations outside of Washington.
“I would literally take the EPA and send it to Alabama or to another state,” he told radio show host Jeff Angelo. “I would take the FDA and send it to maybe Maryland, or Virginia, or beyond. I would actually break up this monopoly of Washington being the location, the epicenter.”
Scott further proposed “starving” other departments and focusing more on states’ rights as outlined in the 10th Amendment. He named the Department of Education as an agency to starve in order to send more money to states and students, though he did not propose eliminating it entirely.
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has outlined more generalized plans to cut waste and spending while preventing a permanent bureaucracy, without taking the axe to any individual department.
“I would send a team into every single agency and tell them to cut regulations, cut bureaucracy, take out any people that are [a] problem,” she said. “And I would make sure that people who work in agencies have to work [no more than] five years in one job, and they have to rotate to other jobs.”
“We can’t have any fiefdoms or power structures there,” she added.
A five-year rotation policy would prevent decadeslong bureaucratic tenures like that of Anthony Fauci, a conservative punching bag who led the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for 36 years. Not coincidentally, frequent Fauci critic Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) has proposed scrapping that agency.
The energetic 38-year-old has been one of the surprises of the campaign cycle so far, rising into third place behind Trump and DeSantis.
Ramaswamy has laid out detailed plans to cut three agencies — the FBI, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and Department of Education. He also wants to eliminate the Education Department’s role in doling out student loans and grants, sending grants to the Labor and State departments, while sending loans to Treasury. Like others, he’d also send some of the department’s money to the states.
He says the FBI has too many “professional bureaucrats” who should see the door, while those who stay would be reassigned to seven different existing agencies.
Similarly, he charges that 47% of NRC staff is redundant, while the rest could be assigned to other agencies. These moves, he says, would save 62% of the NRC’s budget while speeding up the approval process for new nuclear plants.
Former Vice President Mike Pence has released a federalism plan that calls for returning money to states from the many agencies that have sprung up since the end of World War II.
“The roles and responsibilities of the federal government have had a meteoric growth in modern history, which has created bloated federal spending, record inflation, and enhanced a central government structure over ‘government by the people,’” Pence said at a conference in Indianapolis. “More power rests in Washington today than at any time in our history.”
Not surprisingly, this plans calls for eliminating the Department of Education and giving its money to the states. Pence also wants to decentralize healthcare, welfare and housing programs, and highway funding, while returning some of the 640 million acres owned by the federal government to the states as well.
Chris Christie’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
No matter who wins next year, it remains a long shot for any federal department to go extinct. Reagan entered office promising to eliminate the departments of Energy and Education, the latter of which was just three years old in 1981.
House Democrats kept that plan from becoming a reality, and Republican campaigns are still making the pledge more than 40 years later.
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