FRANKLY, WE THOUGHT we'd seen the last of the Panama Canal treaties when the Senate ratified them last year. The administration thought the same. Unfortunately, the issue is very much alive. Many who opposed ratification never stopped agitating, and they have induced the House to use the process of writing treaty-implementing legislation to rewrite the treaties. A second Panama battle, in the House, is on. It could end-some treaty opponents count on it-in provoking a Panamanian reaction that would in turn generate pressures here to suspend putting the new pacts into effect.
One threat comes from the House Merchant Marine Committee. It has passed implementing legislation with highly provocative provisions for payments to Panama and for approving the transfer of property to Panama. During the deliberations the administration's own tactics raised the question of whether it was leveling about costs. If finally straightened out its act, but meanwhile the damage had been done.
Troublesome as the committee bill is however, it has a certain political rationale. The House seems determined to demand at least as tough a bill. It has not had the education in reality that its Merchant Marine Committee underwent by working on the legislation. Many House members, for instance, do not indicate that they understand, as almost all committee members do, that there is a second party to the treaties, by the name of Panama, whose sovereign requirements must be met if the United States is to continue the use and defense of the canal. Sensible people must hope that if and when the committee bill is passed, its provocations to Panama can be removed in conference.
Meanwhile, Rep. George Hansen (R-Idaho) is pushing a measure that would have the effect of stopping the treaties cold. Something close to 200 congressmen have, lemming-like, followed as co-sponsors. Mr. Hansen passes himself off as a conservative. In fact, he acts like a radical whose mission is to wrest away from Americans the canal benefits ensured them by the only process with legal standing, Senate ratification. If a hostile agent had secretly set out to deny the United States the continued use of this vital water-way, he could scarcely improve on the performance of Mr Hansen.
In brief, many in the House continue to pretend that the United States can still say no to the treaties. It would be foolish not to take the challenge seriously. The administration and its friends in Congress have their work cut out for them.