IN PUBLICLY threatening to subpoena withheld documents, the Civil Rights Commission has reminded us that there are limits to the methods that elected and appointed officials can use to reshape government in their ideological mold.

The administration's broad efforts to recast civil rights policy seem to have included, though perhaps not by design of the senior appointees, serious failures to give the commission simple kinds of information. The commission uses the data to monitor the civil rights enforcement efforts of executive branch agencies and the hiring practices of the president. So, for example, it wants: the racial and gender breakdown of presidential appointments; the agency reports collected by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that detail government-wide efforts to monitor the civil rights compliance of federal grant recipients and contractors; and official statements of the Department of Education's position in some sex discrimination suits.

There's just no point in having a commission charged, among other things, with keeping tabs on the civil rights activities of the federal government if the commission can't get basic information about what's going on. Congress recognized this when it created the commission in 1957. That law instructs the executive branch to cooperate, and gives the commission limited subpoena powers to underscore the point. Previous administrations have complied with comparable information requests. Why can't this one?

The White House now seems contrite enough about the bureaucratic foot-dragging that impeded the Civil Rights Commission's work. This must owe something to commission chairman Clarence M. Pendleton Jr. But his willingness to press for information should not be mistaken for a revision of his substantive views. He is still a strong supporter of the administration's overall policies. Whatever is ultimately shown by the missing information, we hope Mr. Pendleton and the commission will provide a balanced and independent assessment of what the administration is and isn't doing.

This commission is an odd creature. Without authority to regulate or issue orders, its only powers are to seek information, issue reports and try to persuade. Its work in recent years has been uneven in quality and lacking in focus, and as Congress begins work on its reauthorization, there are important questions to consider about its future. But whatever that future, the present law is clear. Ideological disagreements with its premises are no excuse for ignoring the law, with respect to the Civil Rights Commission or any other agency.