221. Briefing Memorandum From the Assistant Secretary of State for Congressional Relations (Bennet) to Secretary of State Vance 1

Your Breakfast Meeting with House Members on the Panama Implementing Legislation May 3, 1979, 8 a.m.


We have invited a group of moderate to conservative House Members to discuss House strategy for gaining approval of the Panama implementing legislation over breakfast Thursday. (A list of those invited is at Tab 1.)2 Not all of these Members have agreed to support the implementing legislation, but they are all important leaders, all of whom are at least leaning in favor. David Bowen and Ed Derwinski are our most active allies and they were consulted over the composition of this group.

Opening Remarks

David Bowen and Ed Derwinski will want to initiate a detailed discussion of the politics of this issue and the strategy for handling it. Warren Christopher and Brian Atwood who will attend will help to carry this part of the discussion. Your opening remarks should therefore stress the vital importance of this legislation for the national interest, acknowledge the political burden the issue creates and cite the need [Page 529] for leadership on both sides of the aisle. Following are some suggested points:

—I am well aware of the political burden this issue represents for many of you in the House. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the national interest is in keeping the Canal open and running efficiently.

—We need your help in explaining to your colleagues and to the American people the advantages of fully implementing our treaty obligations and the disadvantages of failing to do so. No legislation, or bad legislation, could have a serious negative impact on the Canal’s operation—could even close it down for a while.

Jack Murphy has reported out a bill which, though it contains provisions we do not like, would implement the treaty. Our goal now is to get that legislation through the House.

—This legislation is basically concerned with Canal management. The Congress is charged with setting the rules which will govern whether it is managed well or badly. I need your advice and assistance to see that the right kind of law is passed.


We have been trying to work with Jack Murphy to develop a strategy for protecting his version of the implementing legislation from further debilitating amendments. This has not been an easy task since Murphy wants to hold the Administration at arm’s length while he works on developing a center-right coalition to support what he would describe as a “Congressional control vs Executive Branch fiat” piece of legislation.

While there are serious flaws in Murphy’s bill, we feel the chances of correcting them in the Senate are good. Our goal now is to get his legislation passed on the House floor in as painless a way as possible. To do this we need to develop a core group of bi-partisan supporters who will be willing to participate actively in lobbying colleagues and participating in the floor debate. David Bowen and Ed Derwinski would be the defacto leaders of this group.

Following are some of the political issues we will need help with during the debate:

1. Treaty standing.

Though the courts have ruled that the treaties are self-executing and the transfer of property will take place on October 1, even without implementing legislation, many in the House feel they can undermine the treaties by defeating the implementing legislation. Key conservative Members, such as Bob Bauman, have already conceded that the treaties will go into force October 1 whatever Congress does and we plan to quote their views on this issue extensively. It is extremely important politically that we get Members over the hurdle of believing that they can undo or renegotiate these treaties. Once they have reconciled themselves, they must then face the consequences of defeating [Page 530] legislation, or enacting legislation that would disrupt the Canal operation.

2. Costs.

Representative George Hansen has, through some gross misrepresentation and double counting, come up with $4 billion as the cost of treaty implementation. Last year you and Secretaries Brown and Alexander estimated that the cost would be $350 million over the twenty-year life of the treaties. In March of this year, however, we sent to the House data indicating that the cost might be as high as $870 million. This figure was based on high-cost assumptions and it is possible that a review recently commissioned by the President himself will produce yet another estimate, somewhere between the two earlier estimates.3 Chairman Jamie Whitten of the House Appropriations Committee has asked the President to review the matter personally.

This cost issue should not be an insuperable one politically. Hansen’s figures make ours seem small by comparison. In addition, it is important to emphasize that these payments do not go to the Panamanian government. Virtually all the additional costs are either for new responsibilities taken over by the Defense Department as a result of the treaties, or for the early retirement benefits for Canal employees.

3. The Hansen Bill.

Our most difficult task will be to defeat the moves of George Hansen to substitute a new bill which would require Panama to pay all implementation costs. If he fails in this ploy, he may move to recommit the legislation. Hansen and his supporters may have a host of other hostile amendments, including:

—No payments to Panama as long as there are outstanding expropriation claims.

—Non-implementation of “unconstitutional” parts of the treaties, e.g., Panamanian government members on the Canal Board.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Files of Assistant Secretary J. Brian Atwood, Subject Files and Chrons. 1977/78/79/80, Lot 81D115, Box 1, Secretary’s Breakfasts, Meetings w/ Members of C. Limited Official Use. Drafted by Taylor and Atwood and cleared in S/PTA, ARA/PAN, and ARA. According to a May 4 memorandum from Bennet to Moore, Vance met with Murphy and a bipartisan group of ten other representatives. (National Archives, RG 59, Files of Assistant Secretary J. Brian Atwood, Subject Files and Chrons. 1977/78/79/80, Lot 81D115, Box 1, White House Reports April–June 1979)
  2. Attached but not printed. In a May 2 memorandum to Vance, Bennet reported that Murphy and Findley had been added to the invite list because Murphy had been designated to shepherd the legislation through the House and represented the “single most important asset in getting this legislation passed.” As of 4 p.m. on May 2, the following members had accepted the invitation to attend the meeting: Zablocki, Murphy, Fascell, Bowen, Bonior, AuCoin, Oberstar, Derwinski, Findley, and Pritchard. (National Archives, RG 59, Files of Assistant Secretary J. Brian Atwood, Subject Files and Chrons. 1977/78/79/80, Lot 81D115, Box 1, Secretary’s Breakfasts, Meetings w/ Members of C.)
  3. See Document 222.