Why Eliminating a Government Agency Isn't That Simple

Nov 12, 2015

Texas Senator Ted Cruz is promising to eliminate five federal agencies if elected President. That’s a pledge he made in Tuesday night's debate. Shrinking government by closing agencies has been a common refrain among Republican candidates, but in reality, it's really not that easy.


Conservatives hold up Ronald Reagan as one of the best, if not the best president, of the last 100 years. But even the Great Communicator couldn't eliminate agencies, says Brian Smith, a political science professor at St. Edward’s University.

"When Reagan got into office he said immediately, I want to kill the Department of Education and Department of Energy. And both of these agencies are still here."

Smith says instead of eliminating an agency, the president uses the power of the purse strings to punish agencies they can't get rid of.

"They play a funding game where they reward programs that they like and support, and punish those that they do not by reducing the amount of funding,” he says.

While even the Gipper may have been hamstrung by checks and balances, those campaigning for the position of Commander in Chief have free reign to propose all manner of governmental agency nixings. But, especially in recent years, proposals from the Lone Star State have drawn the spotlight to the idea – less in terms of support and more in terms of virality.

Former Gov. Rick Perry infamously proposed three agencies that he’d shut down immediately if elected — well, he almost did. In a 2011 debate, Perry proposed shutting down the Department of Commerce and the Department of Education, before stumbling as he struggled to recollect the name of a third Department he wanted shut down. In the end, he couldn’t remember the agency, and his response of “Oops” became a catchphrase for his failed 2012 bid for the White House.

Nearly four years later, Texas’ junior senator found himself in a similar predicament.

On Tuesday night, Cruz defended barbs directed towards his tax plan by suggesting he’d also close some government agencies. Like Perry, Cruz floated closing the Department of Commerce, along with the IRS, the Department of Energy, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and, again, the Department of Commerce.

While that could’ve very quickly devolved into his own “oops” moment, Cruz played it off, and the moderators didn’t call him out on the flub. He later clarified that the Department of Education was the fifth agency on his proverbial chopping block.

But realistically, how hard is it for a sitting president to eliminate an agency?

Reagan ran on a platform of eliminating the Department of Education, but he could never do so during his tenure. After failed efforts led by the House to eliminate the Commerce Department in 1996, in a bipartisan move, the body ultimately only eliminated the Board of Tea Examiners.

That's right, pretty much the best example of an agency being eliminated is when a 99-year-old, seven-person board that cost $200,000 to operate was dropped.

Keep in mind, there have been plenty of large-scale closures and reshufflings of government agencies over the years, but it's not something that's done overnight.

A World War I-era poster from the Committee on Public Information.
Credit Pritzker Military Library, via Wikimedia Commons

Congressional money to the Works Progress Administration was pared down as the U.S. economy boomed during World War II, and it ultimately cut off in 1943. The Interstate Commerce Commission – which had regulated interstate business since 1887 – was abolished in 1996 after decades of congressional chiseling of the commission's power. 

Still, there are plenty of others that, like the Board of Tea Examiners, didn't stand a chance – namely, the Bureau of Economic Warfare, the Federal Theatre Project, the Bureau of Entomology and the Committee on Public Information, the government's propaganda arm during World War I.