A Promise to Cut Wasteful Programs, and Other Ideas From the Democratic Debate

Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders pose for a photo before their debate Thursday. Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders pose for a photo before their debate Thursday. Jim Cole/AP

Hillary Clinton promised at a Democratic presidential debate on Thursday to root out wasteful programs in federal government and make them function better, saying she knows what it takes to run an efficient bureaucracy.

Clinton said she would neither eliminate nor add any federal agency. Instead, she said she would conduct a “top-to-bottom review,” to find out what works and what does not, “and be absolutely clear we’re getting rid of what doesn’t work.”

“I'm interested in making what we have work better,” Clinton said. “I want to streamline programs that are duplicative and redundant.”

The former secretary of State touted her time leading the department, saying she has experience in federal management.

“I have had the opportunity to run a big agency,” Clinton said. “I was very flattered when Henry Kissinger said I ran the State Department better -- better than anybody had run it in a long time. So I have an idea of what it's going to take to make our government work more efficiently.”

Clinton added she could not specify exactly what she would cut before she saw the results of her review. One area she promised not to cut was the Veterans Affairs Department. Asked if VA should be privatized, the former secretary said she would instead fix it.

“There are a lot of issues about wait times and services that have to be fixed because our veterans deserve nothing but the best,” Clinton said. She gave credit to her opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., for passing the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act in 2014, saying she would “build on” those reforms. (You can read more about Clinton’s VA reform proposals here.)

For his part, Sanders also promised not to privatize the VA, though the bill both he and Clinton mentioned expanded veterans’ ability to receive private health care. He called the measure “the most comprehensive VA health care bill in the modern history of the country.”

While most Republicans in Congress were focusing on ways to ease the firing of VA employees, Sanders successfully fought to include in the reform bill funding for new facilities, doctors and nurses. The bill ultimately expedited the process to remove VA’s senior executives, but Sanders did ensure some degree of due process. The senator agreed with the need to boost accountability at the department, he said at the time, but wanted to prevent “wholesale political firings.”

He has, however, come under fire for not responding more quickly as chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee to concerns raised by whistleblowers about manipulation of wait time data. In a CNN town hall on Wednesday, Sanders conceded, “We should have done better.”

The insurgent presidential candidate noted in the Thursday debate that those who receive VA care like it, recalling his conversations with veteran organizations on their experiences at VA health care facilities.

“Without exception, what they said, ‘good, excellent, very good,’ Sanders said. “We've got to strengthen the VA. We do not privatize the VA.”

Both Democratic candidates said they would authorize a far more robust federal intervention in Flint, Mich., to fix the water supply contaminated with lead.

“The idea that there has not been a dramatic response is beyond comprehension,” Sanders said. “And when you have one of the, I think, significant public health crises of recent years, of course the federal government comes in.”

Clinton agreed, saying federal agencies should step in and later find a way to make the state of Michigan pay for it. Federal responsibilities should include fixing Flint’s piping system and “whatever health care and educational embellishments they may need going forward,” she said. 

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