THE REPORT from the Independent Commission on the Arts was supposed to open up some political space on the much-vexed federal arts funding issue, and to some extent it has. More space comes with a Senate committee's approval Wednesday of legislation reauthorizing the National Endowment for the Arts as it is while making explicit the penalties for actual obscenity. Exhausted partisans on both sides had hoped the commission, appointed by the White House and Congress and protected from the crosswinds of direct-mail hysteria and reelection pressure, would manage to stake out some reasonable and politically safe middle ground to which legislators could withdraw. The commission, co-chaired by lawyer Leonard Garment and New York University president John Brademas, has tried, putting together a cogent (and unanimous) argument for making "sweeping changes in the structure" of the endowment, while arguing with equal cogency that so-called "content restrictions" should not be among them.

The report stresses that obscenity is already illegal, that the courts are the proper venue for ruling on and defining obscenity, and that a more efficiently structured NEA would be automatically more sensitive to these concerns and to public art's burden of "fostering mutual respect." This formulation may not be a magic bullet. But it shifts the responsibility back to those who want content restrictions to offer some direct rebuttal to the compelling legal, practical and public policy reasons here marshaled against them.

The commission usefully debunks the idea that accountability without content restrictions is impossible. It recommends deemphasizing the now-decisive role of the peer panels, which were "advisory" in the original law and could usefully be returned to that status. It puts considerably more responsibility on the NEA's chairman to make final funding choices, heightening his political accountability. The Senate committee's bill would require NEA-funded artists to return money if convicted of obscenity under the current Supreme Court guidelines.

The commission notes that the arts endowment furor is "part of a larger set of disagreements over the direction of culture in this country." Undoubtedly true though this is, the direction of a country's culture is decidedly not something Congress (or any government -- ask the Soviets) can legislate. The legitimateissue before Congress remains practical rather than ideological: how to provide this modest support to the arts efficiently, flexibly and constructively.