Panama Canal Politics
The House of Representatives chooses Panama over Nicaragua for America's ambitious plan to dig a canal.
New York, Thursday, January 16, 1902
In the act of voting almost unanimously on Thursday for a Nicaraguan canal, the House made it altogether likely that the canal may really be constructed at Panama. All that was really signified by the passage of the bill was an overwhelming desire that an Isthmian canal be dug somewhere or other, and a renewed confession by the Representatives that they are not able or willing to legislate seriously, and that they prefer to leave everything to the Senate. In casting 102 votes, as against 170, for an amendment favoring the Panama route, the House gave the plainest kind of hint to Senators to go ahead and buy out the Panama Company, in the perfect assurance that the unterrifed Hepburn and all the rest would meekly acquiesce. Indeed, Hepburn himself could advance no stronger argument for his bill than that the action of the House upon it could easily be reversed if the all-wise Senate so asked. The whole exhibition on the part of the House was melancholy, and even shocking. Openly to shirk responsibility, to rush like sheep to pass a bill which every man who voted for it must have known to be improperly drawn and to have no chance of becoming law, and without a blush of shame to call upon the Senate to do the work of the House—how could a great assembly stand more palpably self-condemned? Several Representatives, we are glad to say, were conscious of the humiliation involved in such shiftless legislation, and openly protested against the leadership which had brought the House to so insignificant a pass.
As for the terms of the Nicaragua bill itself, the admission of slovenliness could no further go. The bill is precisely the same (except for changing an 8 to a 4), down to the smallest word, as that passed by the House last May. All that has happened since then is completely ignored by the high and mighty Hepburn. The report of our own Canal Commissioners, to secure which Congress voted $1,000,000, simply does not exist for him. Take one item. The expert Canal Commissioners estimated the cost of a Nicaraguan canal, exclusive of the sum required for the right of way, at $189,000,000. The Hepburn hill provides that the total cost, right of way and all, shall not "exceed in the aggregate $180,000,000." He has thus quietly raised his estimate of last May by $40,000,000, but still professes to know more about it than any mere engineer who has studied the problem on the spot.
The speech made by Mr. Hepburn on January 7 on his Nicaraguan Canal Bill was disreputable in more than one particular. It contained the immoral suggestion that the canal, when built, should be free of tolls to American ships, meaning that there should be discrimination against foreign ships. This is in the teeth of the Hay-Pauncefote treaty, upon which the ink is scarcely dry, which declares that there shall be no discrimination whatever in the use of the canal for or against the ships of any nation. When Mr Hepburn was pressed for an explanation of his words on this point, he said he hoped that Great Britain would give consent to discrimination in favor of our ships, although he must have known that the whole aim of British diplomacy (and of our own, too), until this time, has been diametrically opposed to discrimination in tolls. Mr. Hepburn said that our war-ships would go through free of toll anyway—a statement that can be true only in the sense that, as we are to build and own the canal, the tolls will he taken out of one pocket and put into the other. Under the treaty there is no more chance of discrimination in tolls on war-ships than on merchant ships.
It is disreputable in another sense that Mr. Hepburn seems not to have read the report of our Isthmian Canal Commission. In a colloquy with Mr. Reeves of Illinois he said that, inasmuch as the Panama Company had no right to sell out to the United States without the consent of the Colombian Government, it had forfeited its concession; and Mr. Reeves apparently assented to that view. Yet on pages 219 and 220 of the Commission's report there is a letter from Admiral Walker to H. Hutin acknowledging receipt of certain correspondence between the latter and Sedoñr Silva, the Colombian Minister at Washington, showing that the Colombian Government had authorized him (Hutin) to enter into negotiations with the purpose of selling the Panama Canal to the Government of the United States. This statement, which was published in the newspapers months ago, cannot be questioned or ignored without disputing either the genuineness of the letters or the authority of the Colombian Minister to commit his Government. As no such question was raised by Mr. Hepburn, the natural inference is that he has not read the report of the Commission. It seems, however, that one Congressman who took part in the debate, Mr. Mann of Illinois, had actually familiarized himself with the contents of the report, for he said that he did not agree with Mr. Hepburn that the Panama Company had forfeited its rights by offering to sell its concession to the United States. Mr. Mann also, while favoring Mr. Hepburn's bill, dashed the hopes of the latter in reference to discrimination in tolls, by pointing to the clause in the new treaty which forbids it—a very simple but very necessary reminder to the Chairman of the House committee having charge of this important matter.