FOR TWO years now the people of Puerto Rico have been strung along by some politicians -- both at home and in Congress. They were led to think they would be allowed to conduct a referendum on what for better or worse is a leading issue in their politics: the island's relationship to the United States. The choice would be between the alternatives symbolized by the three Puerto Rican political parties -- independence, statehood or a continuation of the mixed status of commonwealth.

Each party endorsed the idea, which none could afford to oppose and from which each sensed a possible advantage. The politicians here also professed support; well they might in a time when they were urging and giving speeches celebrating self-determination in so much else of the world. But the complicated Puerto Rico question was never high on the congressional agenda, and the bill has foundered over terms.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved a version last year providing for a "self-executing" referendum: whatever the Puerto Rican people voted for would automatically take effect. That required spelling out the three alternatives in considerable detail -- the changes they implied in everything from taxes and benefits to the application of environmental and other federal laws. But the energy and other committees with jurisdiction differed on these definitions, and no legislation has reached the floor.

In the House, the interior committee rightly sensed that the all-important details could not be worked out in advance, if only because Congress had never focused on them. The panel therefore decided on, and the House approved, a less ambitious referendum as the first step in a longer process. The Puerto Ricans would choose among the three alternatives broadly defined. Congress would then spell out the winning alternative in full -- in effect, the terms it was willing to grant -- which would take effect only if finally approved in a second referendum.

This defusing of the process is a good idea that the Senate should accept. Energy chairman J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.) says there isn't time, but procedural shortcuts are taken all the time at the end of a Congress. Congress would not be committing itself, only keeping alive a process that in Eastern Europe or the Baltics it would be heartily endorsing. Sen. Johnston should reconsider.