The Race to Eliminate Agencies, and Other Ideas From Presidential Candidates

Republican contender Ben Carson speaks at a rally in Little Rock, Ark., in late August. Republican contender Ben Carson speaks at a rally in Little Rock, Ark., in late August. Danny Johnston/AP

It has become common presidential campaign theater to threaten to eliminate federal departments.

Former Gov. Rick Perry, R-Texas, famously forgot which three agencies he would do away with in a debate during the 2012 cycle. Candidates have carried on the tradition in the 2016 race. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., would eradicate the departments of Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, Education and Energy; Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, former Gov. Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., and Gov. Scott Walker, R-Wis., have all discussed eliminating the Internal Revenue Service; Paul and Huckabee have discussed abolishing the Transportation Security Administration; and virtually all 17 Republicans running for the White House have spoken generally about trimming the size of the federal government.

While those talking points are -- for a variety of reasons -- unlikely to actually amount to real policy changes, they remain crowd-pleasing stump speech staples that appeal to voters who believe the federal government has outgrown its essential purpose. While the aforementioned agencies are common targets of presidential aspirants, some departments have largely avoided such calls.

Until recently, the Veterans Affairs Department was one such entity; many candidates have called for major VA reforms, but none had said it should cease to exist.

That is exactly what former neurosurgeon Ben Carson proposed in a recent radio interview, however.

“There is a lot of stuff we’re doing that doesn’t make any sense,” Carson said. “We don’t need a Department of Veterans Affairs. Veterans Affairs should be folded in under the Department of Defense.”

He said veterans should be given health savings accounts, which they use to obtain private care. Health facilities managed by the Pentagon should focus on specialized care specific to vets, he said. A spokesman for Carson, who has been climbing the polls of late and is now in second place in national averages, told Politico as president, Carson would make his plan to eliminate VA “a top priority.”

Carson’s proposal received backlash from veteran groups, as well as another presidential candidate: former Gov. Martin O’Malley, D-Md. The Democratic long shot said in a tweet this week that unlike Carson, he was “working with vets across the country on a plan that is worthy of their service and sacrifice.”

O’Malley also announced this week a plan to get more Americans involved in public service, including at the federal level.

“Federal agencies should invest in national service, in partnership with AmeriCorps or other service organizations, to fulfill their missions,” O’Malley wrote on his website as part of a plan to “develop new federal service corps.” The former governor said he would charge federal agencies with creating corps to deal with issues such as veterans’ issues, education equity and childhood hunger.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has backed a less dramatic proposal to trim VA. The senator endorsed a plan earlier this year to essentially privatize veterans’ health care by turning the Veterans Health Administration into a non-profit government corporation that competes with the private sector for patients.

Rubio made headlines this week by adding his name to the agency elimination movement, suggesting, “We don’t need a Department of Education.”

The senator suggested Education’s grant programs create a “national school board,” which he called unnecessary.

While most of his Republican rivals have discussed ways to rein in the federal government, Gov. Chris Christie, R-N.J., has unveiled proposals to give federal agencies new responsibilities.

First, Christie said he would hire FedEx founder Fred Smith to come to Immigration and Customs Enforcement to teach its workforce how to track immigrants like the company tracks packages.

“At any moment, FedEx can tell you where that package is,” Christie said a town hall in New Hampshire. “It’s on the truck. It’s at the station. It’s on the airplane. Yet we let people come to this country with visas, and the minute they come in, we lose track of them.”

On Thursday, Christie said he would authorize the Drug Enforcement Administration to raid marijuana businesses in Colorado and Washington. The Obama administration has agreed to allow the businesses to exist in the states, which have legalized marijuana, without federal interference. 

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