THE HOUSE of Representatives may not have realized, as it was hurrying toward adjournment, what an extraordinary thing it was doing when it in effect voted lifetime tenure for members of the Civil Rights Commission. The Constitution gives lifetime tenure to federal judges "during good behavior," but no presidential appointee has ever had a lifetime job. Now, if the Senate concurs next month, members of the Civil Rights Commission will, so long as Congress reauthorizes the commission itself.

Currently commissioners serve at the pleasure of the president; they can be fired and replaced, as Commission Chairman Theodore Hesburgh was fired and replaced by President Nixon's selection of Arthur Flemming. But the possibility of the entire commission's being replaced is unsettling. To avoid that possibility, to keep the commission reasonably independent but not totally insulated, the sensible thing to do is to provide for lengthy staggered terms, and a proposal by 18 moderate Republicans would have done just that. Unfortunately, it was jettisoned, and the House voted that members could never be removed from office except for "neglect of duty or malfeasance in office."

Curiously, the case for fixed, staggered terms was stated ably as recently as March 24 by one of the same lobbyists who is now seeking unlimited terms. But that was before President Reagan made three nominations--all with strong civil rights credentials --to replace three sitting members. Those appointees haven't been confirmed in the Senate, and opponents hoping to delay them until the current members can be frozen into office by a combination of delay in the Senate and the lifetime tenure bill.

All this is being done with outraged cries about the need to protect the independence of the commission. But that's not what's at stake. The proponents of lifetime terms also decided to reauthorize the commission for only five years, rather than for the 15 they sought earlier. Their real aim seems to be to freeze the present appointees into office so long as Ronald Reagan is in office, but to keep the option of replacing them in some future administration. There's no reason to take seriously the argument that this is being done to set up a fair process. It's just a matter of keeping our guys in and their guys out.

Lifetime tenure makes sense if what you want is continued cheerleading for the points of view of certain organizations and reassurance that they need not change any of their views and priorities. But if you think there's a need for an organization within government that examines carefully and critically racial and other impermissible discrimination in a changing America, then it's better to have some turnover from time to time in the Civil Rights Commission. The issue now goes before the Senate. It would be well advised to ignore the smokescreen arguments and to give the commissioners fixed, staggered terms.