After months of raucous debate in Congress, the historic Gramm-Rudman-Hollings automatic budget-balancing act goes into effect Saturday, slicing 4.3 percent off virtually every program in the federal government.

The across-the-board cuts will have an uneven impact, slicing relatively easy items like travel and equipment purchases in some offices while requiring a nine-day furlough for every meat and poultry inspector in America and a reduction of 91,000 scholarships for low-income college students.

United Nations dues will fall $12 million in arrears, the Geological Survey's principal research vessel won't sail, helicopter scrutiny of Mount St. Helen's will be cut back, the U.S. attorney's office in West Palm Beach will get along with one lawyer instead of three, Guam will replace fewer water pipes, and top secret defense research projects will have to be cut somewhere.

This is the first round of the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985, designed to eliminate the federal deficit by fiscal 1991. The reduction by 4.3 percent represents a cut of $11.7 billion to meet a deficit target of $171.9 billion for 1986.

This year, the law appears likely to trigger few, if any, firings or reductions in the federal work force. "We can't afford rifs," said an Agriculture Department budget officer. "It costs us $19,000 to run a rif by the time you buy out their annual leave and pay severance" and the average salary is only $25,000. The Office of Personnel Management has not received a single request for permission to offer early retirement.

Still, "At the worker bee level there is a lot of pain," said Gerald F. Meyer, associate commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.

Congress is bracing for requests for supplemental funds and reprogrammings (moving money from one project to another) to make up for the $11.7 billion in cuts.

Both houses of Congress unanimously passed a law Tuesday to prevent big reductions in home loan guarantees for veterans. Rep. Edward P. Boland (D-Mass.) described the bill as "a technical correction to Gramm-Rudman. . . . I would venture to say that this will not be the last such correction we will have to make."

Gramm-Rudman-Hollings has elicited widely differing responses from the agencies it touches. Some seem to be muddling through 1986 on the assumption that the money will be restored in 1987. Some have conscientiously minimized the impact on the public, and some say they don't know what they will cut.

Some labor-intensive sections of the Department of Agriculture are examples of places that will be painfully aware of this first round of cuts as early as April 1.

"We are faced with a nine-day furlough for 9,000 full-time permanent people," said William L. West, budget officer for the Food Safety and Inspection Service. "Of course, under the law you cannot run a [slaughtering] line unless an inspector is present, so the industry will have to close when our inspectors are on furlough.

"We are considering doing it on holidays and by cutting back one hour a day" to minimize the impact, he said. "But if [industry] wants to put on a third line or an extra shift, they can't. And our people won't get paid, including me."

In the Energy Department, by contrast, "There will be no major impact on the department of this cut, no crisis," said Philip D. Keif, deputy press secretary.

Education is an example of a department where Gramm-Rudman-Hollings may have wrought what President Reagan has been unable to get through Congress -- cuts in eligibility for college grants.

The number of scholarships for students from low-income families is expected to drop about 290,000 this fall under last year's level. More than 90,000 of the loss is due to Gramm-Rudman-Hollings. Last fall, a student from a family of four with two employed parents and an income of $28,400 might have qualified for a scholarship. This September, that figure will be reduced to $23,900.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics is an example of a governmental agency that has tried to minimize the impact of cuts. It is the agency that compiles the consumer price index, which determines the size of the cost-of-living adjustments received by Social Security recipients and millions of other Americans.

The cost-of-living revision project took a 4.3 percent cut, as did the cost-of-living compilation account. Plans to expand data collection to 91 areas have had to be shelved. "We've picked the areas not to survey that will have the least effect on the quality of the number," Mark said. "We've cut out entirely certain surveys and cut back others. It has been rough."

Barry Bosworth, an economist at the Brookings Institution, said some agencies are merely postponing spending in the expectation that their friends in Congress will restore the money next year.

When a U.S. District Court panel declared the critical automatic trigger provision of the new budget law unconstitutional Feb. 7, many federal employes and lawmakers began to act as if the entire law were moot. The Supreme Court will rule this summer.

"There is a false sense of security that the issue will be resolved by the courts," said Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Cal.), "that a little bit of the heat is off."

Budget officials say that the slow starvation of programs can not go on forever, although Gramm-Rudman-Hollings specifically prohibits the elimination of any program. "Somewhere along the line people have to make a decision. If it's not important, abolish it. Enough of this lingering death," said a budget director.

Reprogramming is one answer. The State Department has already spent all of its money in some accounts that are supposed to take a cut. The National Park Service also is likely to ask for a reprogramming, having received "impact statements" from each park that called for the closing of such popular attractions as the Blackwoods Campground in Acadia National Park in Maine.

The Defense Department faces a 4.9 percent cut in most programs because the president decided to shelter military pay and the Strategic Defense Initiative, also known as the "Star Wars" program, from cuts. "It's not the smart way to make those kinds of cuts," said Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), who voted against the law. "But there'll be no irreparable damage -- 4.9 percent, what the hell."

Most commonly, government agencies will eke out the last few hours of service from old equipment, keep vacancies open and cut back on travel, training and supplies.

Consider the FDA. Most of FDA, said associate commissioner Meyer, is "fundamentally a police force. Tylenol and Gerber baby food are our business. Last weekend we opened 707,000 Tylenol capsules and 13,900 jars of baby food. Any time we have an emergency, we do it, then bite the bullet on costs.

"We are team players," he said. "We have a long record of being team players, and we are not being critical of the administration when I say that Gramm-Rudman is not without its pain.

"I answer the phone myself between 4:30 and 6. . . and our medical officers are learning how to use the word processors so they can type their own reviews. Whenever a secretary threatens to leave there is an uproar: 'My God, what can we do to keep her, can we drive her to work?' Because we know we can't replace her."

The political fallout once the cuts go into effect is unclear. "I can't play out this thing politically," Aspin said. "I can't tell by next November whether it will be a good thing to have voted for Gramm-Rudman or not."

The important question might be whether Congress has the political will to sustain Gramm-Rudman-Hollings if the Supreme Court invalidates the automatic mechanism in the law. In that case, Congress itself would have to approve the increasingly severe cuts necessary to meet the deficit targets in fiscal 1987 and beyond.