President Ford sent legislation to Congress yesterday that would provide for a referendum on Puerto Rico statehood in the early 1980s.

The legislation was drafted in consultation with Puerto Rican Gov. Carlos Romero Barcelo, who said he persuaded the White House to delay consideration of the issue while he concentrated on pressing economic problems.

Under the bill, Congress would appoint a joint U.S.-Puerto Rico commission to study the terms of statehood. Congress would set the final terms, upon which Puerto Rico would hold a referendum.

If the referendum should pass, a state constitution would be drawn up by a convention of delegates and then proposed for ratification by the Puerto Ricans and approval by Congress and the President.

If the constitution gained approval, Puerto Ricans then would elect two senators and five representatives, after which the President would declare Puerto Rico a state.

The process would take three to six years, the White House estimated.

During that time, Romero said, he would undertake an educational campaign to convince Puerto Ricans of the benefits of statehood, while the commission studied how to minimize the impact of the transition.

In a message to Congress accompanying the bill, Ford said, "full equality for the people of Puerto Rico cannot come without full representation. The social and economic progress to which they aspire cannot come without the political equality of statehood."

Ford called for Puerto Rican statehood last month reportedly without consulting Romero or other Puerto Rican officials. The action, coming as it did in the final weeks of his administration, took Congress and the Puerto Ricans by surprise.