One government lawyer said it best: "Everybody has always finessed the first day of a shutdown."

And particularly this year, with all the confusion over the fate of the continuing resolution, not to mention questions over which agencies actually would be involved, this morning arrived with many a bureaucrat wondering: what am I supposed to do at work today?

When government agencies are ordered to shut down, as appeared possible today, the law requires that they conduct only "essential" activities and "phase down" the rest of their operations.

It doesn't say employes have to be zealous about doing things they may have to undo tomorrow. While the form of a shutdown may be followed, the substance of government activities usually is not altered enough for the average citizen to notice. The mail is delivered, military maneuvers and criminal investigations continue, the air traffic controllers are on the job.

This year's budgetary drama is considerably less dramatic than last year's, since the appropriations bills for several agencies, including the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, already were approved. On Saturday, the president also signed the appropriations bills for the Transportation and Agriculture departments. Congress yesterday also sent the president the Interior Department funding bill.

But funding for other major agencies remained hostage this weekend to political battles in the lame-duck Congress and between legislators and the White House. The largest agencies potentially affected are the Health and Human Services Department and the civilian side of the Defense Department.

These are also the agencies that have offered the most resistance to prodding from the Office of Management and Budget, whose general counsel, Michael Horowitz, serves as master of ceremonies for the event.

On Friday morning, Horowitz and officials of HHS still had not come to terms on how many employes of the Social Security Administration were truly essential to the department's continued functioning. OMB also had received a crisp letter from the office of Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, saying Defense understood the requirements of the law mandating the shutdown and strongly implying DOD's decisions need not be second-guessed by OMB.

A year ago, when large portions of the government closed up shop because of a similar impasse between Congress and the White House, all defense's military and civilian employes continued business as usual. Late Friday, a Defense spokesman would say only that DOD had "a contingency plan" and there was no need to discuss particulars unless the agency's spending authority lapsed.

These prickly encounters aside, Horowitz said earlier last week that the repeated dress rehersals for a government shutdown made the preparations this time seem routine. An OMB directive requires all agencies to provide the budget office with plans detailing which of their employes are essential and which will be sent home if a funding hiatus seems likely to last more than a few hours.

The OMB directive draws its authority from two opinions written by then-attorney general Benjamin R. Civiletti, one shortly before a day-long shutdown of the Federal Trade Commission and one a few months later. The first interpreted the 1870 Antideficiency Act as prohibiting an agency from carrying on its business if Congress hasn't given it money to spend. Agency heads who defied the law could be subject to criminal penalties, Civiletti said.

The second opinion enumerated the government activities essential to protecting the life and property of American citizens and meeting contractual obligations. In a directive sent out from OMB Friday, activities such as medical care, border protection, criminal investigations, borrowing, tax collections, generating electrical power and "maintaining the protection of research property" -- including feeding experimental animals -- were specifically exempted from a shutdown.