Eight Republican presidential hopefuls participate in a debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on Wednesday.

Eight Republican presidential hopefuls participate in a debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on Wednesday. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Slashing the federal workforce and eliminating agencies: Takeaways from the first Republican presidential debate

Eight Republican candidates for president shared their ideas for reforming, and shrinking, government.

Eight of the top Republican candidates for the presidential nomination in 2024 used their first debate on Wednesday to rail against the size of the government and to advocate reducing federal agencies' resources. 

The candidates pledged to cut federal workforces, spending and, in some cases, entire agencies. They criticized the Biden administration and lawmakers for growing the size of the “administrative state.” Here are the main takeaways from the contenders at the Milwaukee debate on how they would change or reform federal agencies and their workforces.

  • Asa Hutchinson: The former governor of Arkansas made the most direct promises with regard to the civil service. He first cited his vast federal experience, including time in the George W. Bush administration leading the Drug Enforcement Administration and as an official in the Homeland Security Department. Hutchinson pledged to cut 10% of non-defense employees in the federal government, which he said would be the first of his “attacks on the administrative state.” He noted that he cut 14% of Arkansas state employees during his eight years in office. 
  • Ron DeSantis: The Florida governor took several shots at federal employees. First, he said he would have fired Anthony Fauci, a former National Institutes of Health official and leader in the federal COVID-19 response. He also criticized the various investigations and prosecutions of former President Trump, saying he would “end the weaponization of these federal agents.” Trump declined to appear at the debate. DeSantis also vowed to surge troops to the southern border. 
  • Vivek Ramaswamy: The private sector entrepreneur vowed to declare a “war on the federal administrative state,” saying it would reduce the “toxic regulations on the economy.” Ramaswamy said he would eliminate the FBI; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the Nuclear Regulatory Commission; the Internal Revenue Service; and the Commerce Department. He also pledged to send a significant number of troops to the U.S.-Mexico border. 
  • Mike Pence: The former vice president pledged to eliminate the Education Department, as have several candidates in previous forums. On the issue of federal spending, Pence said he would “restore fiscal sanity.” 
  • Doug Burgum: The North Dakota governor derided the Biden administration for using Inflation Reduction Act funding to hire as many as 87,000 new Internal Revenue Service employees. While the net gains at IRS will be far lower after accounting for the backfilling of vacancies and future attrition, Burgum said the money should instead go toward staffing up the Border Patrol. The governor noted the agency has failed to reach its authorized staffing level. He also pledged to eliminate Education. 
  • Tim Scott: The South Carolina senator similarly criticized the upcoming hiring spree at IRS and went even further in his pledge to redirect the funding. He called for Border Patrol to double its workforce, which would far surpass what the agency has ever requested. 
  • Nikki Haley: The former South Carolina governor and Trump administration official said the top priority for Congress should be to restrict spending and stop borrowing. She criticized Republican lawmakers for allowing “earmarks” in appropriations bills. 
  • Chris Christie: The former New Jersey governor pledged to not sit back and allow “the spending that’s going on in Washington.” He did appear to support a massive surge in one aspect of federal operations, however, saying “you have to” forcibly deport the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants residing in the United States.