Until now, the Congressional Budget Office has enjoyed an enviable reputation as a non-partisan body that produces honest, objective studies for Congress.

But that reputation may not last long. If this nation's lawmakers aren't careful, the CBO could soon be turned into a propaganda arm for whichever political party happens to control Congress.The danger became apparent recently when the CBO was asked by several House members to project the effects of a proposal to raise the minimum wage to $5.05 an hour. Michael Pogue, a professional economist on the CBO staff, responded with an honest, scholarly report.

That evidently is just what House and Education and Labor Committee chairman Rep. Augustus Hawkins, D-Calif., and his staff did not want.

The proposed hike, wrote Pogue, would "cause the loss of approximately 250,000 to 500,000 jobs, or about 0.2 to 0.4 percent of total employment. In general, the negative impact on employment would be larger in the sectors of the economy and the groups in the labor force with low wage rates."

That conclusion is in close accord with that of a study conducted at about the same time by economists at the University of Chicago. It said the harmful effects of a minimum-wage increase will be largely concentrated on the young, the poor and the South. This latter point is especially important, because the Democratic House leaders need the votes of Southern lawmakers to pass their bill.

Pogue told Scripps Howard News Service that after he sent his report to Hawkins' committee, he was told that "the majority (Democratic) staff then decided they didn't want it." CBO obliged by providing a second version, from which the embarrassing section on economic impacts was omitted. As the acting director of CBO put it, "the committee didn't like the answers we gave."

If Hawkins and his colleagues want the CBO to censor reports that clash with their political agenda, they can no longer expect the press and public to heed those reports as serious academic studies.

Though it's always risky to antagonize the people who sign the paycheck, the CBO should stiffen its spine and spurn any further demands for the kind of studies that compromise its integrity.