Office of Management and Budget Director Richard G. Darman has ordered civilian federal departments and agencies to come up with plans for chopping 31.9 percent out of their budgets, sending administrators into frantic meetings and employee morale into a slump.

Cuts of that magnitude would be needed to reach the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings fiscal 1991 deficit target of $64 billion if Congress and the White House fail to agree on a deficit-reduction plan before the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

Departments and agencies must have their plans on Darman's desk by Aug. 27. Some agencies have announced furloughs and others yesterday were calculating how to reduce their agencies' costs by a third.

While several officials acknowledged that the threat of furloughs and layoffs is a way to step up political pressure on Capitol Hill, they also recognize the harm such budget talk causes. "Everyone starts saying, 'Oh God, oh my God,' " said one department official. "I think it shatters morale."

The automatic spending cuts, called sequestration, would reduce the estimated $168.8 billion deficit by about $104 billion to reach the law's 1991 target. Automatic spending cuts in the defense accounts will be 21.2 percent to 34.9 percent, Darman's memo indicated.

For some employees, the threat of an unpaid layoff means postponing personal plans or reorienting family finances.

"I have a mortgage note, a car note," said Denise Anderson, a secretary at the Interior Department who sat through a meeting last week in which she was informed about possible furloughs. "We figured we'd have a couple of hours off. We weren't expecting a week."

Anderson, whose husband works for Social Security Administration, said the couple informed their real estate agent that their plans to find a new home might have to be put on hold. "It's tough," she said.

The memo, sent this week, comes during an apparent stand-off between the president and Congress over how to reach the law's deficit-reduction target for 1991.

Last year, Congress ran up against the budget clock but the deficit was only $16.2 billion when time ran out, which translated into automatic spending cuts of 5.3 percent in discretionary domestic programs and a 4.3 percent reduction in Pentagon spending.

Department officials were able to juggle books and shift spending to comply with the cuts until an agreement on a budget reconciliation bill was reached.

Because of the size of the deficit this year, such temporary accounting magic may not be as easy.

"If you have a deep sequester, there will be an instantaneous result," said Stephen Dewhurst, budget director at the Agriculture Department.

Darman predicted in July that automatic cuts of this magnitude also would translate into a reduction of up to 1 million military personnel, a 600 percent increase in air traffic delays due to air traffic control system cutbacks, the elimination of Pell grants to 3.4 million students and the elimination of 200,000 4-year-olds from the Head Start program.

The possibility of such a severe budget crunch has sent several agencies scrambling.

The Interstate Commerce Commission, with a staff of 667, announced an immediate hiring freeze and that employees should expect to be furloughed two days a week when the fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

At the Agriculture Department, officials said there would be a 32 percent cut in the $10 billion farm subsidy program, and the 8,000 meat and poultry inspectors would be ordered to take a 32 percent cut in work hours. "That would mean the {meat} industry would essentially be shut down," said Dewhurst.

Interior Department employees in Washington were told "we would have to come to work on a voluntary basis four or five days during a month," said department spokesman Steven Goldstein.