One of the least edifying debates of recent times took place Wednesday in the U.S. Senate. It was an almost-inside-the-Beltway issue: whether National and Dulles International airport should be transferred at a bargain price of $47 million by the federal government to a regional authority.

Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.), best known heretofore as a big-picture statesman, opposed the transfer as a local issue -- that it would be harmful to Baltimore-Washington International Airport. His filibuster effectively blocked action.

His ally was Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), a sponsor of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit reduction legislation, who believes that National especially, and Dulles, too, are national assets that should stay in the federal ambit and be improved. He does not lack sympathizers.

We herewith report a fragment of Hollings' remarks on Senate Bill 1017, with the dollars referring to one figure related to the federal deficit, as transcribed by the Congressional Record:

" . . . If we did not have that [national] debt around here, I could give you $207 billion . . . I could build you more airports around here. We could pave it. I could tell you, I would start a runway at Baltimore-Washington International and let it come all the way to Dulles and then have lots and lots of parking and ramps and everything else of that kind and then buy up the rest of the country's airports and take them over.

"We would not have to turn them over to the authorities. We could just buy up everybody's airports and say, 'Look, it is paid for with 207 billion bucks.' . . .

"Here we come on the floor of the Senate and we want to talk about discounting rates [for the airport transfer] and we want to put some more indebtedness on the federal government and call that, as The Washington Post said, 'smart,' s-m-a-r-t, that is smart, and the other expression, 'good financial sense.'

" . . . In terms of present value [of the airports], the loss to the government [through carrying charges on the debt] would be the equivalent to a 1986 outlay of $116 million. Well, that does not help me a bit back on the stump. Because, you see, my opponent would get up and say, 'Look, Hollings, you lost $366 million just to get your name on the airport bill up there . . . yet you are down here talking about waste, fraud and abuse in government . . . how we have to economize and, in order to comply with Gramm-Rudman- Hollings, we all have to pull in our belts.'

"Well, with this airport we all ought to pull in our heads . . . .

"This was a sweetheart deal that I think we can operate the airport, and I can give you an authority from Charleston, S.C., my home town. We would volunteer, I think, if they put through this bill to Charleston, S.C., we would pay for it, and make more money back. I can get a group down there of entrepreneurs that would gladly come forward, pay up the $47 million, and operate and make even better promises to the federal government than what this [Washington airport] commission has made . . . . "