ONE THING you can say about the Panama Canal debate: No snap decisions are being made. The United States is now deep into its second decade of deliberations on its relationship with this small and (but for the accident of the canal)not overwhelmingly significant little Central American bend in the road. Panama stands at the head of a kind of pe/re index:more political energy may have been expended per square inch of real estate in Panama than any other place.
The congressional debate has had, of course, various stages. Many thought and hoped that the stage culminating in the Senate's ratification of the Panama Canal treaties last year would be the last. But this was not to be. Yet another stage has arrive in which the canal is being perceived not as an insturment of the American destiny or as a vital lind in commerce or defense or as the object of diplomacy but rather as the subject of a real estate deal.
To understand this you have only to look at the proceedings in the House, which is balking at enacting the legislation needed to put the treaties into effect-legislation to care for the rights of the American workers in the Canal Zone, to pay for the costs of continuing to defend the canal and so on. The treaties, duly ratified, are now law. Almost everyone in the House except the willfully obtuse body, however,wish either to renegotiate the terms of the treaties under the guise of passing legislation to implement them,or to make the implementation legislation so burdensome that the Panamanians will say "no" and perhaps commit some act of violence that will serve as pretext for the United States to suspend the treaties.
Whether the resisters in the House are doing this out of loyalty to their own and their unreconstructed constituents' views about the canal, or out of resentment at having seen the Senate monopolize the action so far, or for some other reason, should make several good books.The point now is that the resisters are in full cry, having almost ditched the required legislation in a vote last week, and the substance of their resistance comes down to their perception of the treaties as, in the words of one of them, Rep. George Hansen (R-Idaho), "an immense real estate deal."
All right, let us grant the point. The canal involves a lot more than a real estate deal but it involves that, too. If the reservations of Mr. Hansen and his colleagues are to be overcome, as they must be overcome to prevent heavy damage to the United States' continued efficient use of the canal, to American diplomacy and to the Constitution of the United States, then these reservations must be met. Simply put, the Hansen thesis is that Panama, which is taking over a valuable property built up by the United States, should pay for it. He has in mind some billions of dollars which the treaties, he accurately points out, fail to recapture. Well, why not?
The first reason is, or shoould be, obvious. The deal has already been made - in the treaty already negotiated, already ratified, irrevocably bound to transfer the zone to Panama come Oct,1 regardless of anything the House does.
The second reason is that, in the eyes of the Carter administration and its predecessors and of the U.S. Senate (and, for those who care, of Panama), the deal was and is fair. The United States has had the use of the property for 7o yeare, on terms that, if not altered, unquestionably jeopardized the American interest in the canal. Under the new treaties, the United States will enjoy continued use of the property, under terms that Panamanians condone and have a stake in making work.
In brief, even if the Panama debate is reduced to an argument over real estate, the United States comes out handsomely. It is not, finally, with the resisters' politics that one must quarrel.It is with their real estate acumen.