THE HOUSE has voted to cut off the funds of the venerable U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The commission's defenders say the vote is sour grapes because the Reagan administration has taken control of the agency. Critics say the problem is not this, but that the agency no longer does its job.

Maybe both are right. What used to be a place of some importance in the government has become the backdrop for a Punch-and-Judy show. The commission's role has been to describe the extent of discrimination in the society and monitor enforcement of the laws meant to combat that discrimination. In its early years -- it was set up in 1957 -- it did this for the most part authoritatively and well. But as the years went by -- and well before the advent of the Reagan appointees -- that authority along with the quality of its product was in decline. In the 1970s it even strayed into such questionable areas as how women and minorities are portrayed in TV sitcoms. In the Reagan years, both before and after the administration took it over, it has been mostly argumentative and shrill. Little useful work is any longer done by the commission. Yet there is much a serious commission could do.

The work lies in two directions: first, to describe continuing discrimination and what is (or is not) being done about it; second, to examine the limits of the remedies in place to combat that discrimination. Both are fertile fields. But it has been a long time since the commission has been able to make a major contribution to either. The staff three months ago produced a study of set-aside programs, the efforts to steer government contracts to minority businesses. To reach a judgment on the favoritism these involve, you want to know how effectual they are. No one does know now. There needs to be a huge amount of tedious research. In the rush to a conclusion (that the programs should themselves be set aside) this wasn't done. The embarrassed commission had to send the study whence it came.

Can the commission be reconstituted and rebuilt in such a way that it can usefully deal with the subjects a commission should address? Its continuation or dissolution should rest on the answer to this question, rather than be a political reaction to the travesty of the commission's purposes that has been witnessed in recent years. If Congress thinks it can re-create the commission as an entity that could still do a useful job, then it should. If it thinks the thing is beyond hope, then, by all means, let it go. In its present form, this quarrelsome agency shames its past. Its dismantling would only raise the level of debate.