For years, U.S. automakers have dragged their feet when it comes to producing fuel-efficient cars - the kind that Japanese imports have used to devastate the American market. But the lessons that should have been learned from the Japanese are still being neglected.

Automakers not only have failed to meet government-mandated mileage standards - and succeeded in getting federal officials to delay the deadlines - but they are now trying to turn back the clock.The Bush administration is evaluating a plan to that would reduce mileage standards from the present 27.5 miles per gallon to 26 mpg. That ought to be avoided.

There's no reason for this step backward - except that auto firms can make more money on bigger luxury cars. The congressional Office of Technology Assessment says Detroit could produce cars with 33 mpg by 1995 "using current technology and without sacrificing performance."

Yet auto officials, when pushed for estimates on what kind of mileage standards they will achieve by 1995, reply that they haven't gone that far in their forecasts. What short-sighted planning.

Unfortunately, the automakers appear to prefer the big short-term profits and lavish bonuses to company executives while hoping that Japan continues to obey a voluntary limit on the number of cars shipped to the United States.

What happens if Japan decides to ignore that limit? Or what happens if the price of gasoline soars like it did in the 1970s?

What will happen, of course, is that U.S. automakers will be left with their hands full of unsold gas-guzzlers.

The Office of Technology Assessment says that U.S. automakers are unlikely to improve the mileage standards "without regulatory incentive to do so." Congress ought to take that message to heart.