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It all but sank his presidential campaign in 2011 when former Texas Gov. Rick Perry forgot one of the three federal agencies he had promised to erase.
“Oops,” he said, during the Republican presidential primary debate, drawing a blank on live TV.
Perry, oddly enough, was appointed years later to lead that very same agency by then-President Donald Trump. It was the Department of Energy, in case you’ve forgotten that Perry was a Cabinet secretary.
And Trump, rather than shrink the number of government agencies, actually created a new one, in the US Space Force.
Most presidents are pretty good at creating new federal agencies or at least putting their mark on at least one. But Republicans’ promises to cut the government have accelerated in recent years, driven by outrage over Covid-19 school shutdowns, anger at federal regulations and distrust propelled by Trump’s attacks on the justice system.
Most of the candidates hitting the first 2024 Republican presidential primary debate stage on Wednesday have advocated for ending at least one government agency. Here’s a look at which candidates would erase which government agency.
Note: CNN’s Abby Turner, who has previously written about Trump’s campaign promises for a second term, contributed the backbone of this report by poring over the campaign sites and speeches of the top Republican candidates to identify which parts of the government they’d cut.
Vivek Ramaswamy, the wealthy, young political neophyte who made a fortune in biotech, has built his campaign around his effort to combat what he views as “woke” ideology in corporate America. But Ramaswamy also pushes the idea that voters need to take the government back from the government.
“The biggest myth in American democracy is that we actually elect our leaders,” Ramaswamy says in a video posted to social media. “We don’t. We go through the motions. The real people who run the show are part of an acronymist, three-letter alphabet soup in the federal government.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation was first created in the early 1900s during the Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft administrations and got its current name in 1935 during the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration. After years of Trump accusing the agency of being part of the “witch hunt” against him, public confidence in the FBI has eroded from 80% in 2017 to 59% in a June Fox News poll. Most of that decline has been among Republicans.
Ramaswamy would also end the IRS, which has its roots in the Civil War administration of Abraham Lincoln, as well as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which got its current name in 1974 from then-President Gerald Ford, who eradicated the Atomic Energy Commission.
Calls for a major reorganization of the federal government ebb and flow
The Department of Homeland Security was created in 2002 under the George W. Bush administration after a large-scale government review in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks.
And debates about the size and scope of the government factor in every presidential campaign.
Reforming, expanding and modernizing the civil service was a main campaign promise of the Republican Teddy Roosevelt in the early 1900s. In today’s GOP, the proposal of former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson to simply cut the federal workforce by 10% is among the least severe of candidates on the debate stage.
Ramaswamy is also one of the multiple Republican candidates who have promised to abolish the Department of Education, which Republicans have been threatening to do since not too long after it was established during the Jimmy Carter administration.
Now, Ramaswamy has called it “the head of the snake when it comes to the spread of wokeism, transgenderism, indoctrination of our kids.”
That’s a pledge that sounds like it would fit in with the larger goal of nearly all Republicans to give parents more power over education at the local level. But it would create a vacuum for how to distribute billions in federal funding and loans to US schools and students.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, for instance, wouldn’t abolish the FBI, but he would target the FBI and Justice Department to “break up these agencies.” He’s argued Republicans should start viewing the DOJ as part of the political apparatus rather than as an agency that is supposed to be above politics.
“Republican presidents have accepted the canard that the DOJ and FBI are ‘independent.’ They are not independent agencies,” DeSantis told the Fox News host and former federal prosecutor Trey Gowdy back in May.
DeSantis also told the conservative radio host Dana Loesch his effort would go much further than simply replacing FBI Director Christopher Wray. He would “clean house.”
He would also eliminate the Departments of Commerce, Energy and Education.
Targeting the EPA and safety regulations
Former Vice President Mike Pence would get rid of the Environmental Protection Agency, created during the Richard Nixon administration; the Department of Education; and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which was created during the Barack Obama administration.
Trump’s promises are less specific, but no less expansive.
“The State Department, the defense bureaucracy, the intelligence services, and all the rest need to be completely overhauled and reconstituted to fire the Deep Staters and put America First,” he says in a campaign video, riffing on his ongoing allegation that the bureaucracy is out to get him.
Trump, in a separate campaign video about ending regulations, says he would cut the “fourth branch of government,” or independent regulatory agencies like the Federal Communications Commission, created during the New Deal by Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the Federal Trade Commission, which was created during the Woodrow Wilson administration and then updated during the New Deal.
DeSantis also pledges to eliminate the fourth branch of government, but does not elaborate in campaign literature on what that will mean.
Back in 2013, the conservative lawyer Jonathan Turley defined the fourth branch of government as “an administrative state of sprawling departments and agencies that govern with increasing autonomy and decreasing transparency.”
As Congress has become more immobilized by partisan bickering, these agencies have become much more active during both Republican and Democratic administrations. They are overseen by political appointees, and the rulemaking process, which is meant to carry out laws passed by Congress, includes public comment.
Making any of the above proposals and promises a reality is a long way off and would likely take buy-in from Democrats in the Senate. For now, they are simply applause lines on the campaign trail.