2024 GOP hopefuls want to abolish federal agencies. Experts say it's a long-shot idea

Many candidates are setting their sights on the Education Department.

September 16, 2023, 6:10 AM

As 2024 Republican presidential hopefuls campaign across the country, many have one pitch in common: a promise to eliminate federal agencies or otherwise dismantle the "administrative state."

At least five of the major candidates, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former Vice President Mike Pence, have endorsed doing away with the Department of Education, a favorite target at August's GOP debate.

Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy has gone a lot further. The list of departments he wants to abolish includes not only the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and Nuclear Regulatory Commission but also the Internal Revenue Service -- and even the FBI.

Earlier this week, he proposed cutting the federal workforce by a whopping 75%.

"Do we want incremental reform?" Ramaswamy said. "Or do we want a revolution?"

ABC News spoke with half a dozen experts about how eliminating departments would work. They described such pledges as political talking points easier said than done, with some calling the proposals either impractical or unfeasible.

"Some of the implications are either dangerous in terms of the ability of the federal government to fulfill its mission or downright impossible, that is making promises candidates are not going to be able to keep," said Donald Kettl, a professor emeritus at the University of Maryland and former dean of its school of public policy.

"It's a long shot," said Kevin Kosar, a senior fellow at the center-right think tank American Enterprise Institute. "Government agencies have a habit of sticking around."

PHOTO: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks as former Vice President Mike Pence, former biotech executive Vivek Ramaswamy and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley listen at the Republican presidential candidate debate in Milwaukee, Wis., Aug. 23, 2023.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks as former Vice President Mike Pence, former biotech executive Vivek Ramaswamy and former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley listen during the first Republican presidential candidate debate in Milwaukee, Wis., Aug. 23, 2023.
Brian Snyder/Reuters

The idea of dismantling these agencies isn't novel. Republicans have long run on the idea that the federal government is too big and needs to be streamlined. Abolishing the Department of Education, in particular, has been a Republican Party goal since the agency was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter in 1979.

President Ronald Reagan made it a standard applause line.

But there's a reason it hasn't happened.

There are so many roadblocks to any such effort, experts said, that none could identify the last time a high-level department was entirely wiped off the map.

"The executive branch has limited authority to reorganize itself, and almost certainly that authority does not extend to unilaterally eliminating a Cabinet department or agency that's provided for in statute," said Michael Thorning, the director of structural democracy at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Eliminating an agency would need to be done in concert with Congress, experts agreed. And with the current makeup of lawmakers on Capitol Hill -- a Republican-led House and Democrat-controlled Senate -- any proposals are likely to face an uphill battle, not to mention pushback from various interest groups that would lobby Congress hard to maintain those departments.

"You cannot get rid of departments unless you undo legislation," said Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow of governance studies at the Brookings Institution.

Take the Department of Education, for example. The $80-billion department oversees student loan services, grant programs, non-discrimination policies and more.

"That means having Congress take a series of very, very difficult votes to say, 'We're not going to have a student loan program anymore. We're not going to have Pell Grants anymore. We're not going to have Title I anymore,'" Kamarck said.

PHOTO: The U.S. Department of Education building stands in Washington, D.C., Aug. 18, 2020.
The U.S. Department of Education building stands in Washington, D.C., Aug. 18, 2020.
Erin Scott/Bloomberg via Getty Images, FILE

Some have proposed reshuffling programs like Pell Grants and Title I to other agencies while cutting what they see as unnecessary or duplicative elements of the department. The conservative Heritage Foundation issued a report in 2020 proposing the elimination of more than 80 Department of Education programs and moving 40 others to different agencies, such as the Treasury Department or Justice Department.

"I think what really needs to be done is a thoughtful process of moving the offices that deserve to stay around to other agencies, and then eliminating the ones that do not," said Jonathan Butcher, the senior research fellow in education policy at the Heritage Foundation.

Kamarck said that could be done, but says how much money you'd save or how much you'd shrink government would be less than candidates suggest. The Heritage Foundation proposal would result in a total savings cost of $17 billion annually.

Similar tough conversations about what's essential and what's not would need to be held concerning other agencies candidates have pitched eliminating like the IRS or Commerce Department, as well as proposals to flatly cut a certain percentage of the non-defense federal workforce.

Kettl and others said dismantling the FBI would be about as close to a "non-starter" idea as possible given its role in criminal investigations, homeland security and more. Ramaswamy has said 20,000 of the FBI's 35,000 employees are "non-essential" and would be out of a job when he shut it down. The rest, he said, could be moved to other law enforcement departments like the U.S. Marshals Service or the Drug Enforcement Administration.

"It's attractive to talk about slashing and cutting and burning," said Kettl, "but the bottom line is that there are important things at work and we have to ask, 'Am I willing to wait longer for airport security lines? Are we willing to wait longer for tax refunds? Are we willing to take the risk that we don't want the federal government stepping in to help people who have been injured by fires in Maui or by tornados in the Midwest?'"