Congress finds it hard to let Federal Helium Program run out of gas

President Ronald Reagan tried to get rid of it. So did President Bill Clinton. This October, their wish is finally set to come true.

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“If we cannot at this point dispense with the helium reserve — the purpose of which is no longer valid — then we cannot undo anything,” then-Rep.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.

The reserve sells off portions of its helium every year, accounting for about 42 percent of the U.S. supply of the unrefined gas. The program, with 52 employees, pays for itself with proceeds from the sales.

But since the 1980s, politicians have been saying that this shouldn’t be the government’s job. Reagan said so in his 1988 budget. Clinton said so in his 1995 State of the Union speech.

Finally, in 1996, Congress passed a law that said it wouldn’t be. The law required the reserve to sell helium until it had paid off a more than $1 billion debt to other agencies. Then its time would be up, and the government would be out of the helium business.

Time is almost up: The program — run by the federal Bureau of Land Management — is expected to make its final payment on that billion-dollar debt. Without action by Congress, that final payment would put a legal stop to the program, which still has about five years’ worth of helium in the ground.

And that looks less like a victory and more like a disaster.

“All of a sudden, you basically take away 40 percent of the supply” of helium, said Moses Chan, a professor at Pennsylvania State University and a de facto spokesman for scientists who use helium in their research. Scientists use liquid helium to conduct experiments at very low temperatures. “That would just be chaos,” Chan added.

In recent weeks, Congress has heard a chorus of such worries. MRI machines and semiconductor plants, which both rely on helium, might be affected. And yes, balloons might cost more. “Imagine, Mr. Chairman, a world without balloons,” Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) said Thursday, mocking Congress for spending time on this issue. He voted “yes.”

There is an argument about how this whole thing happened.

Congress says private industry didn’t step up to supply more helium, in part because the federal government was selling its helium so cheaply. In industry, it’s said that demand for helium has spiked and that finding new supplies isn’t easy. That requires drilling in a certain kind of natural gas field, where helium comes up along with the gas.

All sides, however, seem to agree on the solution.

The helium program can’t die.

Both bills in Congress seek to alter the program as they save it, to raise more money by selling the gas closer to market price. And both anticipate closing down the reserve. They are confident the private sector will be ready soon (there is hope in particular for a new helium plant starting up in Wyoming).

So, how much longer will it take?

“Five years? We don’t know,” Hastings said in a telephone interview. “It could be shorter than that. It could be longer.”

Discuss this topic and other political issues in the politics discussion forums.

David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.
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