Not long ago, Northern Michigan University invited me to address students there as part of a series of addresses on public policy. The subject I chose for my address is, in many places, a scandalous subject: compromise.
Almost all of us in Congress have strong opinions on public policy, strong values that guide us. And on rare occasions, all of us agree on what is the right thing to do.
But we live in a large, complex nation. The interests of our state or region are different than those of others. And aside from local interests, sometimes the answer to a problem just isn't easy or clear. Sometimes we honestly disagree about what's best for the country.
The challenge for the Founding Fathers was designing a system that could accommodate the widely varying opinions of a nation that needed at least some unity to survive. The solution to that puzzle was our Constitution, which ensures that, while everyone has some voice in our government, no single voice dominates. The whole system forces us to accommodate the views of others, even those who disagree strongly with us, in order to accomplish our goals. It forces us to compromise.
But that system breaks down when compromise is in short supply. And it is a rare commodity these days. Leaders in Washington are influenced by constituents back home who believe "compromise" is a dirty word.
Six months ago, that attitude got us a government shutdown. Some of my colleagues in Congress refused to approve funding to keep the government running. They demanded that any legislation to keep the government open also repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Now I can respect a strongly held opinion, even if I disagree with it. But when you refuse to allow basic government functions to continue unless you get your way your whole way our system breaks down.
After all, I have strong opinions of my own. I feel strongly that the tax burden in this country has shifted so that working families bear more of the load, and wealthy people less. Suppose that I, as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told my colleagues, "I will not allow our annual defense authorization act to come before the committee unless Congress passes a bill that closes unjustified tax loopholes used by corporations and the wealthiest individuals." What if every member of Congress adopted such an attitude? Each of us would refuse to allow government to function unless we won total victory and nothing would get done.
And we have so much to do. We have to deal with immigration with the millions of people who now live in the shadows as undocumented immigrants and with the economic costs of maintaining the status quo. We have to continue building our economy. We have to discover new worlds and new cures for deadly diseases.
We can't do any of that if we're not willing to compromise.
There have been some signs that the wave of hostility to compromise is cresting. Early this year, Congress passed a two-year budget agreement. There were provisions that many of us disliked. But partial agreement meant we avoided the cycle of budget crisis after crisis that has done our economy so much harm.
And just last month, Congress passed a farm bill that had been delayed for almost two years by a variety of disputes. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, did a remarkable job getting this bill passed. Nobody agreed with every part of that bill. But we were willing to compromise. We knew that settling for half a loaf, so to speak, was important to the farmers who put the bread on our tables.
These compromises are not so remarkable when you compare them to the scope of the challenges before us. But I hope they are a start. I don't want to spend my remaining months in the Senate fighting over who can be tougher and more uncompromising. I'd rather spend that time working together on the challenges our country faces challenges that will affect the lives of the NMU students I spoke to long after I am gone from Washington.
It is time for us all to recognize that if we are to be remembered in a positive light, it will not be for political opponents we hold down, but for the future generations we come together to lift up.
Carl Levin is the senior U.S. senator from Michigan.