WASHINGTON — Washington. LET IT BE stated for the record, bluntly and without qualification: Statehood for Puerto Rico is an intolerable proposition. Pending bills that would pave the way to that prospect should be defeated out of hand.
The American press regrettably has paid little attention to the Puerto Rican issue. The situation is heating up. Two Senate committees have completed work on a bill (S. 712) that would speed the path to statehood. A subcommittee in the House has reported its bill (H.R. 4765) to the full Interior Committee.
Under a timetable proposed last year, Puerto Ricans would go to the polls on June 4, 1991. They would choose among three options: statehood, independence, or continued status as a commonwealth. Under the Senate bill, if a majority opted for statehood -- even a majority as fragile as 50.1 percent -- Puerto Rico automatically would become our 51st state. Under the House bill, a vote for statehood would still require supplementary legislation.
If a plebiscite is to be held next summer, a Puerto Rican bill would have to be passed very soon. Time is short and pressures mount. Floor votes could come at any time after the committees formally report their bills.
The case for Puerto Rican statehood echoes some of the arguments one hears in support of statehood for the District of Columbia. As U.S. citizens, the island's 3.3 million residents are subject to service in the armed forces. Like residents of the District, they have no voting representation in Congress. The difference is that residents of Puerto Rico pay no federal income taxes or Social Security taxes, and they have no vote for president.
Two paramount objections stand in the way of statehood. The first is cultural, the second constitutional.
Spanish is the principal language of Puerto Rico. Spanish would continue to be the principal language under statehood. The island's proud culture is essentially a Hispanic culture. No act of Congress could alter these facts of life. To admit Puerto Rico to statehood would be to invite the very dissension that has torn Canada apart over the question of French-speaking Quebec. The answer to this invitation should be an emphatic no!
The precedent of Hawaii is inapplicable here. With Hawaii's admission to the union in 1959, the tradition of geographical contiguity was breached, but the principal language of Hawaii is not Hawaiian, but English. It is all very well to have a multilingual society -- we have large areas of multilingual population in Florida and in the Southwest -- but official bilingualism is something else entirely. The U.S. enjoys the great benefit of a common language, abuse it as we may. That asset ought never to be compromised.
Under the Constitution, Congress may admit new states by simple statute, but on one point the Constitution seems clear. It says that ''all duties, imposts and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States.'' In its status as a commonwealth, Puerto Rico now enjoys a great benefit of non-uniformity: U.S. companies doing business in Puerto Rico pay no income taxes on their profits there.
This provision, known as Section 936 of the Tax Code, has been of incalculable value to the island. A study by the Congressional Budget Office concluded that without the incentive of Section 936, Puerto Rico would lose 100,000 jobs over the next 10 years. The unemployment rate is now 14.4 percent. The prospect is for economic disaster.
Proponents of statehood respond in several ways. They point out that the Constitution does not say that ''taxes'' must be uniform throughout the United States; it says only that ''all duties, imposts and excises'' must be uniform. Moreover, proponents have written a neat gimmick into their bill in order to surmount any problem of uniformity: Federal taxes would be collected in Puerto Rico as they are collected in all the states, but during a five-year transitional period in Puerto Rico the proceeds would be given back. The phrase is ''covered over.'' It is in fact a cover-up.
This won't do. With statehood, residents of Puerto Rico would qualify for an additional $2 billion to $4 billion a year in welfare benefits. If they want to go for independence, fine. If they want to maintain their successful status as a commonwealth, fine again. But statehood is irrevocable. Neither Congress nor the island could change its collective mind hereafter. Let us fend off the idea while we can.