THE International Trade Commission deserves a round of applause for its refusal to whip the automobile case through its intricate procedures. The ITC is the federal agency that decides whether imports are injuring a domestic industry and what remedies to recommend to the president. When President Carter briefly stopped off in Detroit earlier this month to cheer up the American auto industry, he promised to request the ITC to expedite its decision on Japanese imports.

What Mr. Carter had in mind was action by the ITC at the beginning of October. That would have brought the case to the White House well before the election, a prospect welcomed by the United Auto Workers. That timing seemed very likely to end in import quotas on automobiles imported from Japan, a costly and dangerous mistake reducing competition in the American market.

Instead, the ITC has now responded to the president by saying no. It voted to stick to a schedule of investigation and deliberation that will run until late November -- well after the election. It's certainly still possible that the proceeding will eventually lead toward quotas. But at least the crucial steps will not be taken in the superheated atmosphere of the last weeks of a presidential election campaign.

No doubt the White House is currently irritated by the ITC, and offended by its stubborn non-cooperation. But in time the president's advisers will be grateful. By sticking to the rules, the ITC has saved the president from the risk of having to make ugly choices next October between the demands of people who make cars and the interests of people who buy them.