The Federal Helium Program — left over from the age of zeppelins and an infamous symbol of Washington’s inability to cut what it no longer needs — will be terminated.
Unless it isn’t.
On Friday, in fact, the House voted 394 to 1 to keep it alive.
“Many people don’t believe that the federal government should be in the helium business. And I would agree,” Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) said on the House floor Thursday.
But at that very moment, Hastings was urging his colleagues to keep the government in the helium business a little while longer. “We must recognize the realities of our current situation,” he said.
The problem is that the private sector has not done what some politicians predicted it would — step into a role that government was giving up. The Federal Helium Program sells vast amounts of the gas to U.S. companies that use it in everything from party balloons to MRI machines.
If the government stops, no one else is ready. There are fears of shortages.
So Congress faces an awkward task. In a time of austerity, it may reach back into the past and undo a rare victory for downsizing government.
“If we cannot at this point dispense with the helium reserve — the purpose of which is no longer valid — then we cannot undo anything,” then-Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said back in 1996, when Congress thought it finally killed the program.
Today, the program is another reminder that, in the world of the federal budget, the dead are never really gone. Even when programs are cut, their constituencies remain, pushing for a revival.
Two other programs axed in Clinton’s “Reinventing Government” effort — aid to beekeepers and federal payments for wool — returned, zombielike, a few years later. Now the helium program may skip the middle step and be revived without dying first.
“This sort of feels like the longest-running battle since the Trojan War,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). Wyden has written a Senate bill, similar to the one Hastings wrote in the House, to extend the helium program beyond October and then eventually shut it down.
This time, the shutdown would happen, Wyden said. “I intend to watchdog this very carefully,” he added.
The program at the center of this debate has its origins after World War I, in a kind of arms race that sounds ridiculous now. In Europe, countries such as Germany were building sturdy, if slow, inflatable airships. The U.S. military was worried about a blimp gap.
So Congress ordered a stockpile of helium to help American dirigibles catch up. It was assumed to be a temporary arrangement.
“As soon as private companies produce [helium], the government will, perhaps, withdraw?” asked Rep. Don Colton (R-Utah) during the House debate.
“That is correct,” said Rep. Fritz Lanham (D-Tex.).
That was in 1925.
Eighty-eight years later, the zeppelin threat is over. Private companies have learned to produce helium. But the U.S. government still has its own reserve: a giant porous rock formation under the Texas Panhandle, whose crannies hold enough helium to fill 33 billion party balloons.