WASHINGTON. — Washington --- Sen. J. Bennett Johnston, D-La., chief engineer of the San Juan Express, will be shoveling on coal this week. His hope is to get a Puerto Rican plebiscite bill (S.244) through both houses of Congress by July 4. The course of common sense is to derail this locomotive before it gets started.
The senator's bill provides for a referendum that offers Puerto Rican voters a choice of three options for the future: (1) statehood, (2) independence, or (3) continued status as a commonwealth attached to the United States. Senator Johnston will not say which option he would like to see adopted. He insists he wants only to let the people of Puerto Rico have their say.
The course of outright independence has the least support in Puerto Rico, but if a change is to be made, the option of independence makes the most sense. Unfortunately, it makes the most sense only in theory. The bill proposes a nine-year transition period in which benefits and obligations gradually would be straightened out, but even with bountiful aid from the U.S. a fledgling Republic of Puerto Rico would barely be able to fly.
Title IV of the Johnston bill undertakes ''to enhance the commonwealth relationship.'' The idea is ''to accelerate the economic and social development of Puerto Rico'' and to encourage ''maximum cultural autonomy.'' Persons born in Puerto Rico would continue to hold U.S. citizenship, though it is not clear what is meant by ''indefeasible'' citizenship. The bill proposes to increase funding for various programs of public welfare. Certain federally owned properties would be conveyed to the island government. In addition to a non-voting ''resident commissioner'' in the House, Puerto Rico would gain a Liaison Office in the Senate.
The options of independence or continued commonwealth status arouse little controversy. The option of statehood is a different matter entirely. Let us suppose that a referendum is held this fall. The voters opt for independence, 1.9 percent; for continued commonwealth status, 48 percent; for statehood, 50.1 percent. A majority vote for statehood, no matter how slim, would constitute a commitment by Congress to implement the choice.
Under the bill, actual admission to the union would be delayed for five years following the referendum. In this transition period, various tax laws that now benefit Puerto Rico gradually would be phased out. The new state (it would be known as the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico) would get two senators and either five or six members of the House.
In passing, it should be noted that great chunks of the Johnston bill probably are either unconstitutional or unenforceable. The bill spells out in numbing detail exactly what would be the legislative consequences of the several options. These elaborate provisions are misleading. They are nothing more than proposals. No Congress may bind a future Congress to any legislative course of action.
That objection to one side, the bill both blandly and blindly ignores certain realities. The greatest of these realities is the nature of Puerto Rico itself. On this issue, let us heed Puerto Rico's Gov. Rafael Hernandez Colon, speaking to Johnston's committee on Jan. 30:
''It must be understood in Washington that Puerto Ricans are not merely another minority group within a pluralistic society. Puerto Ricans form a distinct cultural nationality, a different people in an island by right our own.
''Thus, we must have a clear answer on the question of language under statehood. Puerto Rico is, by all standards, a Spanish-speaking country: 60 percent speak no English at all, another 20 percent very poorly. Language is the heart of culture and identity. Yet S.244 is silent on this.''
Raul Serrano Geyls, a former associate justice of the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico, also speaks of this ''undeniable reality.'' Out of purely economic considerations, many Puerto Ricans might vote for statehood, but they have no wish ever to be ''assimilated'' into the union. They cherish a proud national identity of their own. Bills are pending in the Puerto Rican legislature to establish Spanish as the island's official language.
An odd juxtaposition of events is at hand. Canada once again is torn by the future of French-speaking Quebec. The province wants out. Here at home we debate the future of Spanish-speaking Puerto Rico. Advocates of statehood want in. Before Senator Johnston's bill picks up steam, we ought to reflect upon our melting-pot metaphor. Puerto Rico will not melt.
*James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.