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Vivek Ramaswamy wants to trigger mass layoffs at federal agencies — and he thinks the Supreme Court will back him up

Ramaswamy previewed his effort to shut down federal agencies ahead of a speech at the America First Policy Institute, a think tank stacked with former Trump administration officials.
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Vivek Ramaswamy believes he has the perfect approach to undermine the administrative state and the power wielded by career civil servants — trigger mass layoffs at federal agencies and defend his effort before the Supreme Court.

Speaking with NBC News ahead of a major policy speech at the America First Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, where he is scheduled to explain how he would shrink the federal workforce, Ramaswamy, the businessman-turned-candidate, detailed his plans, which include shutting down a series of federal agencies and using "reduction in force" regulations to trim the number of government workers.

"The reality is the adviser class from the D.C. swamp has convinced Republican presidents from Reagan to Trump that they can’t reorganize the federal government or lay off large numbers of federal employees without congressional permission or within federal regulations," he said. "And we’re going to lay out tomorrow why that view is wrong."

The proposals Ramaswamy is putting forward would add up to some of the most sweeping short-term changes ever to the federal government. And he proposes to do large parts of it by executive action, without votes in Congress — which enacted the laws forming agencies Ramaswamy wants to end — reaching far beyond what past Republican administrations concluded were the limits of their power.

Ramaswamy predicted the legal challenges he would face would center on civil service protections for career officials. His understanding is that they apply to individual employee firings, not mass layoffs.

"We are pointing out parts of the U.S. Code that expressly highlight that they don’t apply to mass layoffs," Ramaswamy said. "Yes, they apply to individual employee firings, which is what they use to convince prior presidents, including Trump, that they couldn't do it.

"But if you actually read the U.S. Code in full," Ramaswamy continued, "they don’t apply to mass layoffs they call reductions in force. And large-scale reductions in force are absolutely the method that I’ll be using."

Vivek Ramaswamy in Contoocook, N.H., on Sept. 2, 2023.
Vivek Ramaswamy in Contoocook, N.H., on Sept. 2.Erin Clark / Boston Globe via Getty Images file

Notably, reduction in force regulations, as laid out by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, include a clear legal process by which career officials can keep jobs in the event of layoffs. The process takes into account factors including tenure, first and foremost, as well as previous performance ratings. The Reagan administration used the regulations to shrink government during the early years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, but the federal workforce ultimately grew under his watch.

Ramaswamy welcomes legal challenges to his effort and predicted the Supreme Court would side with him in a 6-3 decision. Six of the justices were appointed by GOP presidents.

"And that then codifies the changes we’re driving into judicial precedent so that the president won’t have his hands tied in the same way," Ramaswamy said. "We’re going to get far more powerful than a game of pingpong on this."

Ramaswamy has been campaigning for months on eliminating federal agencies, with initial targets including the FBI; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the Education Department; the Nuclear Regulatory Commission; and the Food and Nutrition Service within the Agriculture Department. Ramaswamy has said he would effectively shut down or reorganize each of those agencies at the start of his presidency.

Thousands of FBI employees, he said, would be reallocated to other agencies, including the U.S. Marshals Service and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

He added that the agencies he is targeting are just "five of many more to come."

Ramaswamy said his speech Wednesday will offer additional clarity about what authority he believes a president has to make such changes without congressional authorization, going beyond the briefly enacted Trump administration executive order known as "Schedule F" — an effort Donald Trump and other Republican aspirants want to reinstitute at the start of a new administration. The order would reclassify tens of thousands of federal employees involved in policy decisions as at-will employees, effectively canceling their employment protections and making it much easier for a president to fire them.

Republicans have sought for years to shrink government and get past bureaucrats they see as hostile to their initiatives, but right-wing efforts to crack down on the civil service have intensified recently. That has been especially true as Trump has painted federal law enforcement as biased against him and as Republicans pilloried officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci, formerly the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, over the role they played in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Max Stier, the president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit organization dedicated to an effective federal government, said this year that the Republican calls to fundamentally alter how the civil service works are causing "quite a bit of anxiety in the federal workforce and in the broader community of organizations that are focused on trying to help our government work more effectively," adding that there is "a lot of uncertainty" over what a potential GOP administration could do.

And it is Ramaswamy who has arguably gone the furthest in the field on these issues.

"Everything else has been danced around with Schedule F exceptions, and everyone is tiptoeing around the front door argument," he said. "Now, I’m actually just shutting down these agencies. This speech is going to lay out a level of detail that I think will further take a sledgehammer to that Overton window."

The "Overton window" is a term referring to the ideological boundaries of a political debate.

Ramaswamy this year argued that existing Article II powers in the Constitution allow a president to undertake such a reshaping of the federal workforce without congressional buy-in. Acknowledging there is "nuance and complexity" to his effort, he says now that it is more about using laws on the books, like the Presidential Reorganization Act of 1977, rather than making a strictly constitutional argument.

Some rivals, including former Vice President Mike Pence and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, have ripped Ramaswamy's ideas. After the first GOP presidential primary debate last month, Pence's campaign sent a release to reporters saying Ramaswamy's call to shutter the FBI amounted to an embrace of "the Radical Left’s pro-crime, anti-cop ‘Defund the Police’ agenda.”

On Monday, Christie called Ramaswamy's idea to eliminate the FBI "one of the stupidest ideas I’ve ever heard," citing anti-terrorism efforts the bureau has undertaken in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"Don’t throw that out for a sound bite at a debate to make yourself sound like you’re really smart and aggressive when you’re really shallow and only 38 years old," Christie said at an event in New Hampshire.

In response, Ramaswamy said the "Chris Christie, Mike Pence, Nikki Haley, John Bolton, Karl Rove wing of the party, I think, has a very different vision for the future of the Republican Party than the future that I’m going to be leaning into."

It is notable that Ramaswamy will deliver his speech before the America First Policy Institute, a think tank stacked with former Trump administration officials that some view as a government-in-waiting for a second Trump administration.

But Ramaswamy, who has aligned himself closely with Trump, does not think the group is in the tank for Trump. He said he wanted to speak before the group because it has been "at the leading edge" of the effort to reinstitute Schedule F and could offer a "neutral venue" in the fractious 2024 primaries.