Blowing up the government is a standard Republican talking point. And not just a talking point; the headlong rush to a government shutdown has been embraced by a number of House radical Republicans, who are driving the strategy—believing, against all experience, that Americans will be perfectly happy to go without the intrusive government programs oppressing them.
The congressional extremists may not be in the majority, even if they are driving the House train. But it is in the crowded Republican presidential field where blowing up the government is a common core theme, and there, Vivek Ramaswamy is taking it to another level in his bid to get attention through shocking proposals. None is more shocking than his pledge to slash a million civil servants in his first year as president—and by 75 percent in his first term. He also wants to shutter five federal agencies: the Department of Education, the FBI, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Food and Nutrition Service, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.
“When you have a bureaucracy that runs the state,” he charged, “they find things to do that they shouldn’t have been doing in the first place.” The big question, he asked, is this: “Do we want incremental reform? No. Or do we want a revolution?”
Ramaswamy wants a revolution that is Donald Trump’s “Schedule F” executive order on steroids. Instead of pushing perhaps 50,000 career federal civil servants out of their jobs to be replaced by political appointments, as Trump attempted, Ramaswamy is going all the way, with a proposal to convert all 2.2 million feds into at-will workers who could be fired for any reason, including personal disloyalty. That outflanks Trump on the right.
Ron DeSantis has proposed eliminating the Departments of Education, Commerce, and Energy, along with the IRS. Ramaswamy’s plan makes DeSantis look like a raging moderate by comparison.
The Republicans are in an arms race to see who can seize the headlines by coming up with the most extreme assault on the federal government. To be sure, these plans are unworkable and outside the bounds of legal and constitutional realities. And they have absolutely nothing to do with what it takes to deliver the things that people want and expect the federal government to do. But they are still deeply dangerous and destructive.
Over the last generation, the war against government has become core Republican orthodoxy. The more radical the proposals get, the further the party has drifted from the realities of governance. But that’s only fueled the arms race to see who can come up with the most flabbergasting ideas, with Ramaswamy in the lead—at least for now.
Conservative attacks on government are not new. Ronald Reagan tried mightily to abolish the Departments of Energy and Education. In his presidential run, Rick Perry pledged to abolish three departments but, on the debate stage, he couldn’t remember what that third one was. In his first campaign, Donald Trump promised to “drain the swamp” and then, toward the end of his administration, signed that Schedule F executive order to give his political appointees the power to dig disloyalists out of the federal bureaucracy. Joe Biden repealed that executive order on his third day in office, but the Republicans are eager to reinstate it and get out the axes.
Leading in rhetoric, however, doesn’t match the reality of governing, for four reasons.
First, as much as Ramaswamy might want to cut government with the stroke of a pen, he just wouldn’t have the power to do so. As president of his pharmaceutical company, he might have been able to fire employees as he liked, but the president isn’t an all-powerful CEO, with a pliant Congress as the government’s board of directors.
In fact, the executive branch is the creation of Congress, not the president. Its structure, programs, people, and budget are all what Congress decides they ought to be. Presidents have great power, but they can’t simply overturn what Congress does or ignore the laws that Congress has enacted.
Second, although Ramaswamy says he can slash the workforce through reductions in force and government reorganizations, he doesn’t have the legal power to do so. He can propose, but Congress must dispose. He says he will rescind regulations that he believes are unconstitutional, but he’d find himself in court by nightfall.
Third, the public certainly believes that the government is too big, but surveys show that the desire to reduce its size collapses as soon as you get to specifics. A 2023 AP-NORC poll found that 60 percent of those surveyed think that the government spends too much. But among 16 different policy areas, ranging from the environment to education, there was only one area—assistance to other countries—where the survey’s respondents thought the government was spending too much. And foreign aid amounts to a whopping 1 percent of the budget.
In fact, a majority of those polled said that the government ought to spend more on health care, drug rehabilitation, education, assistance for the poor, infrastructure, Social Security, Medicare, assistance for childcare, and border security. Social Security, Medicare, and other health care programs are already blowing a hole in the budget.
Fourth, getting those things done requires people to do them. Without federal workers, important government functions from airport security to caring for veterans to protecting the borders to managing Medicare simply won’t get done. And nothing would please Vladimir Putin, XI Jinping, and our other adversaries, including domestic terrorists, more than to abolish the FBI and eviscerate our diplomatic corps.
For 140 years, there’s been a bipartisan consensus that supports a professional, nonpartisan civil service. And it’s scarcely the case that this bureaucracy has ballooned in size. As the Partnership for Public Service has pointed out, the absolute size of the federal workforce is slightly smaller now than it was 50 years ago, even as the population is two-thirds larger.
It’s easy to ridicule unrealistic and bombastic pledges to cut the government by 75 percent. But candidates are pushing the arms race into very dangerous territory as they search for radical ideas to regain the spotlight.
Attacking government has been a surefire Republican applause line since Reagan said, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” But further undermining the government’s ability to serve citizens will only further stoke their distrust in government, making it that much more difficult to govern. And, as Ramaswamy has said, it may be that pliant radical-right judges and justices might let him get away with at least some of it.
Legal, constitutional, practical or not, Ramaswamy’s plan could begin to return us to a corrupt spoils system and create havoc in carrying out the president’s oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
And that’s fueling an arms race that no one would win. But a lot of Americans would lose when key and popular government services that protect public safety, public health, national security, along with economic prosperity and well-being, collapse or are damaged and diluted.