A staff member from the National Endowment for the Humanities said yesterday that in the process of recommending budget cuts for the NEH, the Office of Management and Budget "sent word that they didn't want anyone fired."

"They preferred attrition and lowering of personnel ceilings," said the staff member. The budget Reagan proposed in February recommended 50-percent cuts for both the NEH and the National Endowment for the Arts. OMB requested around that same time that no one be fired.

"It may have been verbal," said the NEH staff member of the OMB request, "but it was in no uncertain terms. They don't want to be strapped with firing. They want to do it through attrition."

Allen D. Jackson, chief of the education branch for OMB, said yesterday, "The president has a general objective to reduce federal employment. Generally, he'd rather do it through attrition, but reduced levels could mean that some agencies would have to fire people. It could be the endowments could achieve their lesser levels by attrition. To my knowledge, we didn't officially tell anyone that they couldn't fire people to meet reduced staffing."

The administrative budgets of both the NEA and the NEH were questioned yesterday during a Senate appropriations subcommittee hearing on their budgets. Both agencies' administrative budgets have remained fairly constant as the agencies severely cut other areas of the budget such as program funds.

The NEH is allocating $11 million for administrative funds for fiscal year 1982 -- out of a total proposed budget of $85 million -- as opposed to $11.3 million this current fiscal year out of a total budget of $151 million. The NEA is increasing funds for the administration budget from the current fiscal year 1981 amount of $12.1 million (out of a total budget of $158 million) to almost $12.7 million, out of a total proposal of $88 million.

"There's a tendency in Washington to cut programs at the grass-roots level and rotect the administration people in Washington," said Sen. James A. McClure (R-Idaho), who chaired the NEA portion of the hearing. "I'm not saying that's the case here. But we see that funds are reduced and one part of the agency has not changed. That means a substantial shift in percentage and emphasis."

"In our case," said NEA chairman Livingston Biddle, "it's the number of applications [for grants] received that has not changed." Biddle said the number that the stuff must look over will remain the same.

The National Endowment for the Humanities presented a similar argument when asked about administrative budge by Sen. Warren Rudman (R-N.H.) "The endowment's administrative record has been good," said NEH chairman Joseph Duffey. "We are a lean agency. Further reduction of administrative costs would be irresponsible. Next year, under this budget, we will have half the amount of money [for grants] but the same number of applications."

NEA was also questioned about what happened to monies (around $200,000) set aside for the Federal Council on the Arts that appeared in the Carter budget but not in the revised Reagan budget. "We still have not received word from the administration on how they want to work with the council," said Biddle. (In the past, the council has been a coordinating body including representatives from the NEA, the NEH, the administration and some other agencies.)

Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) appeared the most sympathetic to the endowments. "I really feel the arts and the humanities endowments have been singled out for unfair cuts," he said, adding specifically to the NEH officials, who were testifying at the time, "I think you and your staff have done an excellent job in administering these funds. I'm disappointed the cuts are so severe."