Two-thirds of the benefits of a law designed to bolster U.S. companies against unfair foreign trade have gone to just three industries, raising questions about the program's effectiveness, the Government Accountability Office said yesterday.

The GAO report said the law, known as the Byrd amendment for its chief sponsor, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), had distributed $1 billion to American companies from 2001 through 2004.

Two-thirds of that money went to companies in the ball bearings, candle and steel industries.

Nearly half of the $1 billion went to just five companies.

The Timken Co. of Canton, Ohio, was the largest recipient, receiving $205 million. The other four big recipients were the Torrington Co., $135 million; Candle-Lite, $57 million; MPB Corp., $55 million; and Zenith Electronics Corp., $33 million.

Opponents of the law said they planned to use the report by the GAO, Congress's auditing agency, to try to gain support for repeal of the law, which has also been ruled a violation of global trade rules by the World Trade Organization.

A number of countries have been authorized to impose retaliatory tariffs of up to $134 million in U.S. exports as long as the law remains on the books.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) said a wide variety of U.S. products are being hit by the retaliatory tariffs.

The law "has provided windfall subsidies to a handful of large corporations while other U.S. companies have paid the price," Thomas said.

However, repeal still appeared to be a long shot because the law enjoys wide support in Congress for the amount of money it provides to U.S. corporations. A union representing steelworkers said the GAO report showed why the law is needed.

United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard said the law had enabled companies and labor unions "faced with persistent unfair trade practices to reinvest in good jobs, health care benefits and new technology."