Reflecting on public service and ‘the highest calling’ (Capitol Update)

I caught several portions of the various ceremonies celebrating the life of U.S. Rep. John Lewis this past week. Rep. Lewis was first elected to Congress in 1986 then re-elected 16 times before he died. His long service in Congress, together with his leadership in the civil rights movement, made him revered by millions of people.

Rep. Lewis wrote a forward-looking piece shortly before his death that was published at his request in the New York Times on the day of his funeral. To the next generation of leaders, he wrote, “Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe.” Rep. Lewis answered “the highest calling of his heart” spending 33 years of his life in Congress “standing up for what he truly believed.” 

I am not sure why, but thinking about Rep. Lewis’ life and career turned my thoughts to the 12-year legislative term limit provision placed in the Oklahoma Constitution in 1990 by a more than 2-to-1 voter margin. Oklahoma is one of only 15 states to limit legislative terms. Of the 15 states, 12 passed term limits in the period from 1990 to 1993. No state has added legislative term limits since 2000.

The early 1990s was a time of reaction in many states to the tax increases of the 1980s that had been passed to protect state budgets and services, led by the Prop 13 property tax revolt in California. In Oklahoma, voters passed State Question 640 limiting the ability of the legislature to raise taxes as well as passing term limits. Oklahoma is one of 15 states requiring super majorities of the legislature to raise taxes with ours among the most restrictive at 75 percent. Three states require a vote of the people to raise taxes.

These are relics — I would say mistakes — of the past for which an entire generation in Oklahoma and a few other states has had to pay a price. I suppose the celebration of Rep. Lewis drew me to these thoughts because, in Oklahoma, a new generation of leaders cannot follow “the highest calling of their hearts” and choose to spend their best years “standing up for what they truly believe” through lengthy service as legislators even when their constituents would continue to elect them. 

Not many people, with or without term limits, choose to stay in the Legislature more than 12 years. In fact, few make it to the 12-year limit. But there are some future leaders who would. Last session I spoke with a Republican member serving his last year who, while not complaining, expressed regret at being termed out. He is a genuinely good man and good legislator, and he would have loved to continue to serve. The pity is that there is a limited number of those who are both willing and well suited for public policymaking. We should use them all as long as we can. If a few rotten apples stick around because their voters aren’t paying attention, it’s well worth the price.


Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

2 thoughts on “Reflecting on public service and ‘the highest calling’ (Capitol Update)

  1. Steve– do your thoughts on term limits apply to Congress as well? While the statement “not many people, with or without term limits, choose to stay in the Legislature more than 12 years” is certainly true for Oklahoma, we see Congressmen such as Jim Inhofe stay in their position since the year that I was born.

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