The memos started trickling into the White House early this month: the incoming Republicans wanting to know -- just asking, mind you -- about a farewell burst of government grants and regulations that the outgoing Democrats seem bent on firing off before their guns are spiked.

One of the memos, directed to White House chief of staff Jack Watson, dealt fretfully with the projected costs of some nursing home regulations that were said to be in the works at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Another voiced concern over the prospective issuance of Labor Department rules that could force a pay increase for low-salaried white-collar workers.

Still another suggested opposition to some pregnancy diability regulations under consideration at the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs. u

All were signed by Edwin Meese III, director of President-elect Ronald Reagan's transition forces.

President Carter, of course, has said that he intends to "be the president in the fullest sense of the word until Inaguration Day," which is Jan. 20. And Reagan has said he recognizes and agrees with that.

Strict transitional etiquette, however, is proving a bit difficult to maintain. Despite the outward displays of decorum, there is a lot of scrambling beneath the covers at one government agency after another these days.

Democrats who are about to fall out of power are hurrying to finish long-delayed work, while pretending not to hurry. Republicans about to take over are growing increasingly annoyed at the thought of having to wait another month, pretending not to interfere.

Occasionally, the Reagan transition teams have sought to block some government actions on their own by urging that the department to which they have been assigned not do anything "controversial." Occasionally the alarums make their way up to Meese, who conveys them to the Carter White House. Sometimes irate congressional Republicans have taken up the cudgels, proposing sweeping moratoriums that struck their Democratic colleagues as rather rude, and perhaps unconstitutional.

So far the Democrats are still on top. But the strains are showing.

"We don't want to accelerate things, but we don't want to interdict the ongoing work of the government, either," Watson said. "In many cases, we've got actions pending that have been in development for months and longer. It's natural and quite understandable for major policy and program people to try to conclude these pieces of business before leaving."

One of the biggest battlegrounds is the Department of Labor, where officials want to move ahead with regulations that would increase the minimum salaries -- unchanged since 1975 -- for white-collar workers who needn't be paid overtime.

"The people most vocal in opposing this are the fast-food chains like Burger King and McDonald's," one administration official said. "Their assistant managers work long hours."

Under present rules, workers designated as "executive" or "administrative" personnel are not covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act (which mandates overtime pay) if they get a salary of $155 a week or more. Labor Department officials who believe this is too low say the subordinates of such workers will soon be making almost as much when the minimum wage goes up to 3.35 an hour Jan. 1. In addition, they say, the subordinates will be eligible for overtime.

Business interests led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, however, have denounced the proposed raise -- to a minimum of $250 -- as just one of a number of "midnight raids" that the lame ducks at Labor are trying to stage.

"It was jumped all over as very inflationary in 1978 when a lower level ($225) was proposed," protested Chamber labor law attorney Mark de Bernardo. (

Chamber officials have said they asked the Reagan transition team to do all it could to prevent final issuance of the new salary level. Before long, Meese was asking the White House if it was being "accelerated." Watson replied that negotiations were under way "with the private sector" -- a hint, others say, that the proposed pay level will be reduced in an effort to mollify the fast-food industry, if not the Chamber.

At the Environmental Protection Agency, whose regulations are expected to be a prime target of the new administration, officials are churning out a series of stiff proposals, insisting that all they are doing is complying with court orders or legislatively imposed deadlines.

On Dec. 19, for instance, responding to a 1977 law, they proposed water-pollution controls for the pulp and paper mill industry that could cost $920 million for equipment and production changes.

"The 706 pulp, paper and paperboard mills in the country," the agency said, "are the largest industrial source in the nation of 'conventional' water pollutants."

Other EPA proposals scheduled to be churned out before Jan. 20 include pollution standards for the coal mining industry, the iron and steel industry, and diesel trucks and buses. Their publication will put the burden on the incoming Republicans to weaken them before final promulgation next year.

Norman (Ike) Livermore, head of the Reagan transition team at EPA, said he sounded out Administrator Douglas Costle about postponement of several of the proposals, without saying which ones.

"We expressed our preference about having the run over to the incoming administration, but his [Costle's] reply was that he was under court orders."

Costle apparently had even less sympathy with the protests he got over EPA's recent cutoff of $850 million in federal sewer and roadbuilding funds for the state of California and $34.5 million for Kentucky. Neither state has a law requiring an inspection and maintenance program for automobile emission control machinery.

Costle had "some frantic phone calls" on that issue, Livermore said, declining to say who made them. The EPA administrator replied that he had waited long enough.

"His patience just ran out on that one," Livermore said genially, leaving the impression that the sparring had been quite good-natured.

Secretary of the Interior Cecil D. Andrus' issuance of final water allocations from the huge, partially built Central Arizona Project was greeted with less equanimity. He announced the decisions Dec. 1, rejecting, sources said, an indirect message from the transition team suggesting that he ought not take any action.

At the Federal Communications Commission, hints of what's bothering the GOP have come not from the reportedly sedate transition team of 26 members but from the senior House and Senate Republicans in charge of overseeing the agency.

"Most of the people on the transition team are members of the bar who practice before us," said FCC Chairman Charles D. Ferris. "It'd be considered a conflict of interest if they started making policy judgments. We'd probably want a list of their clients."

About two weeks after the election, Ferris did hear, however, from Sen. Bob Packwood (R.Ore.), the prospective new chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.

"Dear Charlie," Packwood wrote, "I understand that the commission plans to consider several important items between now and Jan. 20, including radio deregulation and children's television. In view of the inevitable personnel changes that will be made at the commission, and consistent with President Carter's decision to defer action on major policy issues, I urge you to follow the president's lead and defer action on all controversial matters."

Ferris wrote back to say, in polite phrases, that the FCC, "as an agency independent of the executive," would continue to conduct business as usual. What would really be controversial, he suggested, would be for the FCC, as a "collegial independent regulatory agency, to defer any action because of an expected change in partisan leadership."

For the senator's information, Ferris did add that the proceeding to decide whether to force better TV programming for children would not be ripe for action for several more months. But he said the proposed deregulation of the radio broadcasting industry is likely to be acted upon in January.

Some of the Republican queries, according to Watson, are simply based on misapprehensions.

For instance, Meese asked, in one of a series of 10 memos that landed on Watson's desk, about some proposed nursing home regulations at the Department of Health and Human Services which, the memo said, would impose costs on nursing home operators.

The White House chief of staff said he checked and discovered that the regulations were "noncontroversial ones involving patients' rights, with no cost implications. I so informed Ed."

In another memo, Meese wanted to know whether a disproportionately high level of urban development action grants -- which Republicans want to make an endangered species -- were about to come pouring out of the Department of Housing and Urban Development on Jan. 1, the start of a new quarter.

Watson said he found this was not the case.

Meese did not respond to requests for comment. Watson would not release and did not discuss all of the exchanges. But one informed source said the scope of several of the memos from Meese was quite broad, even including a request for a virtual freeze on new contracts and grants throughout the Department of Health and Human Services.

"They asked for a situation where the secretary would have to personally sign off on any grants or contracts. So it would have to be an exception to issue any," this source said.

Reagan press spokesman James Brady said he couldn't confirm or deny the reported request, but shrugged off its apparent scope. He insisted that the transition teams recognize that some contracts must be awarded for the sake of ongoing business. Brady said that what the Republicans are really worried about are commitments involving "big bucks that can lock us into a program they know we're opposed to."

"Those are pretty big weasel words," said one administration official. "They asked for more than that at HHS."

By several accounts, the Reagan camp is also anxious to keep a lid on the ambitious Synfuels Corp.

According to Douglas Robinson, special assistant to Energy Secretary Charles Duncan, transition team members wanted to be sure that DOE and the new Synfuels Corp. did not begin handing out the $5 billion in federal funding for big pilot synfuels plants. And they'd been put on edge by calls for fast action from Synfuels Corp. President John C. Sawhill.

"It would have been possible to ramrod some things through, and some suggested we ought to do that," Robinson said, referring to the lobbyists whose companies are competing for federal support. But he said Reagan's aides were assured that DOE was not going to rush the synfuels process.

According to one source, Meese also wanted a hold on any more appointments to the Synfuels Corp., whose senior positions Sawhill has said he is determined to make "competitive with private industry." On Nov. 17, the corporation named a vice president for planning at $140,000; a senior vice president/general counsel at $150,000 and an administrative vice president at $95,000 to join Sawhill ($175,000) as top corporate officers. One or two other vice presidents are still to be appointed.

"The salaries are absolutely incredible," Brady said.

The intricate maneuvering at agency after agency is probably inevitable for any transition period that stretches from early November to late January. As Watson put it, "There's no way you can lay down a flat formula saying all work should go forward or all work should stop."

In any case, he said he tried to respond to all of Meese's memos in a single response Dec. 12, agreeing to defer some regulatory issues, but refusing to put a stop to others.

Watson said, for instance, that he saw no reason to put off the pregnancy disability regulations being developed by the Labor Department's Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs. He said they were "part of the president's affirmative-action program for women" and he was told they might be ready before Christmas.

The regulations, emphasizing maternity leave and preservation of seniority, are to be published in the Federal Register today. But the GOP complaints appear to have had their impact. The new rules have been shorn of their only controversial feature: a provision that would have automatically entitled women to accrue seniority while on maternity leave.

Still another dispute at Labor involves proposed Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules dealing with noise in the workplace, rules that business interests consider too onerous, and expensive.

Whatever happens, one Labor Department excutive said, "the Reagan people can overturn any of these things after Inauguration Day. But it makes life more difficult for them if they have to go through the rigamarole of formal hearings and comment periods, and actively undercut some of our major initiatives. They'd just as soon not have that kind of political controversy."

There are also those in the Carter administration who would just as soon bequeath their headaches to the Reagan forces.

Take, for example, the issue of test-tube babies, and the question of whether there should be ethical guidelines for the growing of embryos outside the body. Religious fundamentalists who want no test-tube babies at all are pitted against researchers bent on experimentation. So, although an ethical advisory board made recommendations for a government funding policy more than a year ago, HHS Secretary Patricia Roberts Harris has yet ato act.

In fact, Harris and Donald Fredrickson, director of the National Institutes of Health, only recently decided that the best course was to pass the issue on to the incoming secretary, Richard S. Schweiker.

"We wouldn't want to saddle him with our decision on such a controversial topic," one participant at the meeting said piously.