Presidential candidates Rand Paul, Chris Christie, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush and John Kasich appear before a Republican presidential primary debate, Thursday.

Presidential candidates Rand Paul, Chris Christie, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush and John Kasich appear before a Republican presidential primary debate, Thursday. Chris Carlson/Associated Press

Here's Everything Feds Need to Know About Thursday's GOP Debates

Cutting feds through attrition, reforming the VA and other ideas from the Trump-less debate.

Eleven Republican candidates for president debated on Thursday evening in Iowa, the seventh such event of the 2016 cycle and the final one before the first votes are cast in Iowa. The main event with the top seven contenders was perhaps most noteworthy for who was not there -- frontrunner Donald Trump, who was instead hosting an event to raise money for veteran organizations. But as in previous debates, it included much discussion of ideas to limit the size and scope of the federal government.

Here is a breakdown of the discussions involving how the candidates would reform federal agencies and their employees:

Rand Paul: The Kentucky senator criticized the National Security Agency, saying the bulk collection of phone data “has not stopped one terrorist attack.” The federal government should have a warrant to conduct such searches, he said.

Chris Christie: The New Jersey governor said his administration would fight domestic terrorism by boosting support for the intelligence community and law enforcement personnel. He added that federal agencies should not engage in profiling, however.

When asked to name one thing he would cut in the federal government, Christie said he would end funding for Planned Parenthood. Asked for something “bigger,” Christie doubled down on his original answer.

John Kasich: The Ohio governor called for major reform of the Pentagon, saying it must do a better job of supporting service members. Later, he stood up for at least one instance of government intervention: Kasich said in a situation like the one with the contaminated water in Flint, Mich., “every single engine of government has to move when you see a crisis like that.”

Jeb Bush: The former Florida governor said reforming the Veterans Affairs Department would be the “first responsibility” for whoever is the next president, deploring VA for only firing three employees in recent years (VA has fired thousands of employees since the wait list manipulation scandal was unearthed in 2014, but Bush appeared to be referring to those terminated explicitly for manipulating patient data). Bush called for firing “the sheer incompetence” at the “Veterans Department,” and criticized the VA for giving out too much money in bonuses. He called for more choice in allowing veterans to access private care, saying the would-be VA patients are waiting too long for care.

Bush has put forward a more detailed plan on reforming VA that follows the basic points he outlined Thursday.

Marco Rubio: The Florida senator spoke of the need to strengthen the nation’s border security.We will hire 20,000 new border agents instead of 20,000 new IRS agents,” Rubio said. The Internal Revenue Service, however, has cut its workforce significantly during the Obama administration.

Rubio later said, “I will always allow my faith to influence everything I do.” 

Ben Carson: The retired neurosurgeon put plainly his desire for less government: “I’m very much against the government being in every aspect of our lives.” He complained that if new regulations issued last year were stacked up, they would reach three stories high. “This is absolutely absurd,” he said.

Before the top contenders took the stage, four presidential hopefuls polling in the low single digits participated in the so-called undercard debate. It included the previous two winners of the Iowa caucus, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, who each explained how they would get government out of the American people’s lives. It was the other candidates on the stage, however, that laid out specific proposals to trim or shape up the federal workforce. 

Jim Gilmore: The former Virginia governor made his return to the undercard debate after not qualifying for the previous five and he used the opportunity to promote his status as a military veteran. He also said no one was talking about “the issue that really impacts veterans,” which he identified as the problematic “Veterans Administration” (a name the Veterans Affairs Department hasn’t held in nearly 30 years). Gilmore pilloried VA’s “lousy appeals process,” the fact that sometimes veterans “get good service at the VA, sometimes they don’t” and a deficiency of psychological resources at the department.

In his presidency, Gilmore said, “vets will be treated with respect at the Veterans Administration.” 

Carly Fiorina: The former Hewlett Packard executive touted her plan to cut the number of federal employees through attrition: “In this vast federal bureaucracy we have about 260,000 federal government employees who are going to retire and we shouldn’t replace them,” she said.

Fiorina cited the VA reform bill signed into law in 2014 that eased the firing of Senior Executive Employees at the department, saying she would fire all 400 SESers. She also criticized VA for doling out bonuses to poorly performing employees while veterans died waiting for care, dubiously interpreting a VA inspector general’s report from September.

In federal budgeting, she said, we should be, “examining every dollar, cutting any dollar and moving any dollar.”