One year ago today the Senate ratified the Panama Canal treaty. If I had been in the Senate, I probably would have voted no. Many Americans, I know, are still convinced we gave the Panama Canal away.
But now the situation is different. Once the Senate has ratified a treaty, it becomes a matter of international obligation for the United States. The House must make the best of the situation. The time for denouncing Panama is over. The time is now at hand to put the treaty effectively into force.
The treaty will go into effect Oct. 1 and remain in effect until Dec. 31, 1999. During that period, the United States will operate the canal under new arrangements with Panama as the junior partner. After the year 1999, the United States will withdraw, but will retain the right to defend the canal indefinitely.
The administration views the canal settelment as a foreign-policy victory, but at this point it is only a partial one. The Panama Canal treaty set up the framework for running the canal through 1999; it was silent on the specifics and legal stipulations that are needed to implement treaty terms.
Under the treaty, Panama grants the United States the right to operate the canal through a U.S. government agency called the PanamaCanal Commission. The commission must be created by U.S. law.
The administration has prepared and submitted to Congress legistation designed to enable us to fulfill our treaty obligations. Rep. John Murphy (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee, has submitted alternative legislation. Both bills will do the job, irrespective of important differences in the legistation.
The United States must be prepared for the basic changes that will occur when the Panama Canal Zone ceases to exist and Panama assumes jurisdiction over all of its territory. Unless the new structure is in place, orderly operation of the canal will be imperiled.
If passage of the implementing legistation is unduly delayed, we face serious problems in carrying out our responsibilities. For example, the proposed legislation involves the transfer of more than 3,000 employees to local Department of Defense activities. The size and complexity of this transfer will have a direct impact on the lives of employees and their families. Obviously, such a transfer requires some lead time. Without it, the results would be chaotic for employees, all the federal agencies operating in the area and the new Panama Canal Commission.
As a result, the administration has set a June 1 target date for congressional enactment of the implementing legislation. The longer we delay beyond that date, the more difficult it will become to make a smooth transition in implementing the treaty.
It is obvious and perhaps understandable why some members of Congress are dedicated to fighting the necessary legislation. They see it as an effective method of undercutting a treaty unpopular back home. It also enables them to claim credit for preserving America's dominant position at the canal.
The clock cannot be turned back. Failure to enact the pending legislation undoubtedly would arouse all the animosities that led four successive U.S. presidents to conclude, after the 1964 riots, that the way to keep the canal operating smoothly and dependably was to give Panama a stake in its operation. To renege on our pledges in the treaty would beto destroy all we have gained in terms of our relations not only with Panama but the Western hemisphere by showing we can deal justly and fairly with a small country to remove a major irritant.
It would be a national disservice for Congress to go down this road. We need the legislation, which will enable the United States to continue to run the canal in the future as efficiently as in the past.
We have to create the new Panama Canal Commission and provide for the designation of its principal officers. We need to maintain the services provided our canal work force and provide incentives to keep the canal operating efficiently.
We have an obligation to carry out the treaty. We have an opportunity to make a success of a bi-national operation, and we have a national interest in the continuing operation and security of the canal.