Iowa Is an Example of Federalism at Its Best

This article was published in National Review.

The more the federal government can stay out of the way, the better.

The battle for the Republican presidential nomination is heating up, and the national spotlight will continue to shine on Iowa as candidates flock to the Hawkeye State to court voters. In January, Iowa Republicans will hold the first-in-the-nation presidential caucus, but national attention is a result of more than just the campaigns. Presidential candidates and the media are focusing on Governor Kim Reynolds and Iowa’s record of advancing conservative economic and social policies.

Iowa may rightfully lay claim to being the standard-bearer for conservative, state-based public policy, as no other state has matched what Reynolds and the Iowa legislature have accomplished since 2018. In light of those achievements, candidates would be wise to remember that none of those wins would be possible without effective leadership, which includes governing in collaboration with the legislative branch. Here in Iowa, the governor has partnered with a number of other elected officials, chief among them senate majority leader Jack Whitver. But these reforms also would not be possible without power resting with the states. Lives in Iowa are improved because of policies that are born here, and not because of mandates or programs that are forced on us from a very distant Washington, D.C.

The fact that Reynolds and her fellow lawmakers have been able to pass one signature piece of legislation after another stands in stark contrast to our federal government, where lawmaking often grinds to a halt even when control of Congress and the White House is held by a single political party. Under Reynolds’s leadership, Iowa enacted a fetal-heartbeat bill on the heels of the Dobbs decision, universal education savings accounts (ESAs) that will be available to every Iowa student, a bill that reorganized and shrank the size of state government, multiple rounds of income-tax cuts that have reduced the top tax rate by almost 60 percent, and judicial-nominating reforms that wrested power away from the bar association and placed it in the hands of elected officials.

Even though many officials at both the state and federal levels hid behind their masks throughout Covid, Iowa was the first state to pass significant liability protection for employers during the pandemic. This protection from frivolous lawsuits as a result of the pandemic was important for businesses, health-care workers and providers, and other institutions. Iowa was one of the few states to keep its economy open during the pandemic. Then in 2021, Reynolds signed laws that required schools to offer 100 percent in-person learning options, ended mask mandates for students, and delivered election-integrity reforms in the wake of 2020’s election shenanigans across the country. The reward for passing so much legislation that places individuals and families ahead of the government and special interests was a landslide victory (19 points) for Reynolds in last year’s election, and more Republican seats in the Iowa house and senate.

Presidential candidates of all stripes should learn lessons in leadership from Reynolds. More importantly, though, they can see how critical it is to let states set their own policy agendas and deliver the solutions that help people and improve lives. Preservation of federalism, a system that strikes a balance of power between states and the federal government, allows states to remain in control, driving their own policy solutions. The Iowa model demonstrates not only that federalism works, but that applying the same principles to national policy will help restore constitutional government.

Iowa’s policy achievements do not simply check another box on a conservative to-do list. These policies are actually improving lives. The impact of three rounds of income-tax cuts has provided Iowa’s largest employers with the confidence to continue hiring and expanding their operations. They specifically pointed to the tax-reform packages that were passed in 2022 as giving them “a great sense of optimism not just in the short term, but the long term.” For families, 2023’s landmark Students First Act created universal ESAs and is one of the most expansive school-choice policies in the nation. It already is proving to be extremely popular: Nearly 19,000 students will benefit from true educational freedom this fall, with more applications still being considered. The number of students who will use these brand-new ESAs far exceeds earlier estimates, highlighting the demand for options in K–12 education.

Iowa was once considered a swing state in national elections, having voted twice for both Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Even with the state now appearing reliably “red,” it would be foolish for any candidate to assume they know exactly what this electorate wants, let alone what voters in the other 49 states are desiring. Leaders such as Kim Reynolds are so popular because they deliver on their promises. Whoever sits in the Oval Office in 2025 should recognize the importance of letting states serve as the catalysts of change, tailoring approaches that reflect local values. The more the federal government can stay out of the way, the better.

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