The House paused last week to honor former members, but as Rep. Abraham Kazen (D-Tex.) wryly put it, the reunion easily could have been held right there in the Interior room.

Everyone in the crowded room laughed, including the four ex-congressmen who were there as hired guns for big farm interests, trying to work their will on one of the major bills of the 96th Congress.

By the next afternoon, their will had been worked with an awesome display of lobbying power on a bill that could shape the future of the expensive federal irrigation program in 17 states of the West.

What began in Kazen's subcommittee on water and power resources as a move to streamline the Reclamation Act of 1902 ended as a legitimization of big-farmer abuses that have made the irrigation subsidy program so controversial, mostly in California.

Subcommittee Republicans, helped by Democrats Kazen, Jerry Patterson (Calif.) and Ray Kogovsek (Colo.), pushed through a bill raising the subsidy limit to 960 acres, allowing leasing by large farmers and providing more subsidized water at less than cost.

The subcommittee's revision of the 1902 act now goes to the full interior Committee, where it is expected to meet stiff resistance.

"This bill is an absolute looting of the Treasury," said Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), after the subcomittee beat down his efforts to curb the subsidies. "These growers are quietly slipping out of a $12 billion commitment they have to taxpayers.

"This was a classic example of the commingling of lobbying money with public policy. The fight now is over the overwhelming influence of money on these policy decisions. If these guys can ride in, spread enough money and turn around 50 years of history made by Congress and the course, I am going to make them do it in public," Miller said.

For the record, there is little evidence of heavy campaign contributions to subcommittee members. The only exception is Rep. Charles Pashayan Jr. (R-Calif.), a Fresno first-termer who argued vehemently for the growers' position. Between January and April, his campaign was enriched by $44,520 from farm and water interests.

But it was clear from the subcommittee sessions, jammed with briefcase-toting operatives, that the growers had a phalanx of high-priced political and legislative lobbying power on their side.

Several lobbyists calculated privately that legal fees and lobbying costs for the farmers in Washington run close to $200,000 per month. Another longtime lobbyist estimated that more than $1 million has been spent by the irrigators in the past four years.

The roster of influence-wielders is impressive.

Former congressmen at the subcommittee sessions included Tom Rees of California, working for Imperial Valley farmers; Pat Jennings of Virginia and James O'Hara of Michigan, enlisted by California growers, and Frank Evans of Colorado, representing interests in his home state.

In each instance, the subcommittee's bill gave their clients the continued water subsidies or exemptions from reclamation law that they sought.

But there is more -- a coalition of bipartisan political names linking up to push the big-farm campaign for special treatment in reclamation, where the cheap federal water has made western deserts bloom.

Growers in California's Kings River district, exempted from acreage limitations by the bill, were represented by Republicans Donald Santarelli, former head of the federal Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, and John Harmer, a former lieutenant governor of California.

Jim Lake, a former aide to GOP presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, was at the sessions, looking out for California growers. William T. Coleman, secretary of transportation under Richard Nixon, was handling legal matters for the Imperial Valley, which also was exempted.

Heading a team lobbying for farmers in California's westlands water district -- the most controversial in the program -- was John Weidert, assistant to Earl Butz when he was Nixon's secretary of agriculture.

Westlands, to keep it bipartisan, was getting help from Democrats as well. They included Los Angeles lawyer Charles Mannatt, chairman of Democratic National Committee's national finance committee, and Fresno broker Joe Meredith, a DNC finance panel member who has channeled thousands of dollars of Republican farmers' contributions into the Carter-Mondale reelection campaign.

The day-to-day Washington lobbying effect for the past year or more has been guided by the Farm/Water Alliance, representing some of the country's largest corporations and trade groups that benefit from the federal water largess.

The alliance is directed by Gordon Nelson, former aide to retired representative B. F. Sisk (D-Calif.), who for years championed the cause of the big water users and holders of excess irrigation land in the Fresno area.

Its Washington "coordinating council" includes representatives of three dozen companies and trade groups, who make up a who's who of American agribusiness.

They include Chevron USA; Tenneco; the Del Monte Corp.; the Bank of America; Security Pacific Bank; the Southern Pacific Transportation Co.; national associations of cattlemen, realtors, wheat, sugar beet, cotton, fresh fruit and vegetable growers and consulting engineers; the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; the National Association of Manufacturers, and the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Their interest lies in perpetuation -- or expansion -- of the pattern of nonenforcement of the 1902 act that has allowed many companies to turn handsome profits through use of the cheap water from federal irrigation projects.

The 1902 law set a limit of 160 acres on which a farmer could use federal water and set other requirements aimed at encouraging family farming and development of arid lands in the West. Through 1976, taxpayers had subsidized these farmers to the tune of $5 billion.

Even under the 1902 law, according to the Department of Interior, 96 percent of the farmers using federal irrigation water on 11 million acres are in compliance.

The argument is about the remaining 4 percent, some of whose holdings are in the thousands of acres, made hugely profitable by the abundant, cheap water provided in reservoirs built with federal tax money.

Under current law, about 1 million acres of irrigated land is considered "excess" -- that is, its owners would have to sell it or stop using the federally financed water.

The Carter administration, under federal court pressure to enforce the law strictly, is supporting a liberal rewrite of the 1902 act to increase acreage limitations but also make more excess irrigation land available to small farmers.

The Senate last year revised the 1902 law, under heavy lobby pressure, in a way that Interior Secretary Cecil D. Andrus called "unacceptable." It exempted about 2.3 million acres from acreage limitations and reduced the amount of excess lands to 300,000 acres.

Asndrus and other reform groups, such as National Land for People in California and the National Farmers Union, predicted the House Interior subcommittee, where George Miller plays a major role, would come up with a far different version.

It did so last week -- but in the opposite direction. Miller and his closest ally, Rep. Jim Weaver (D-Ore), were voted down consistently in their efforts to limit the size of the water subsidy and force the big growers to pay a fairer share of actual water costs.

"It is one of the most outrageous giveaways in the country's history," said George Ballis, a representative of National Land for People. "It's all upside-down. The richest people in the country get welfare. We're going to try to kill this bill, however and wherever."

He still has an ally in Rep. Miller who was fuming after the subcommittee sessions.

"Their power, the concentration of money was astounding -- beyond anything I ever imagined. They even tried to hire my campaign manager and a former associate of mine to influence me," he said.

"I intend to fight back," Miller said. "If you turn your back on it, it's a disgrace to Congress. If they can walk in and steal $12 billion, the federal investment in reclamation, by getting out of payback requirements, they're going to have to do it in the open.

"Congress is going to have to make a decision. If these lobbyists and law firms can do this, it will be the biggest advertisement they ever got. What will the price be next week?"