Congress can't keep a grip on helium problem
WASHINGTON — President 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 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 for 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 had 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“If we cannot at this point dispense with the helium reserve — the purpose of which is no longer valid — then we cannot undo anything,” then-Rep.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.
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.
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.
The program at the center of this debate has its origins after World War I. Countries such as Germany were building sturdy 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 ⅛helium⅜, the government will, perhaps, withdraw?” asked Rep. Don Colton, R-Utah, in the House debate.
“That is correct,” said Rep. Fritz Lanham, D-Texas.
That was in 1925.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Credit-card-stealing virus ‘Backoff’ virtually undetectable, Homeland Security warns
- House GOP balks on young immigrants bill
- CIA admits Senate was spied on
- Museum sleepover for adults sells out
- FDA will regulate labs’ ‘high-risk’ test devices
- CEO shot, wounded in Chicago, apparently by demoted executive
- House’s vote to sue Obama is historic foray into checks, balances
- Congress considers dangers of driving high
- Law enforcement, intelligence agencies want to ‘like’ you on social media
- Obama’s many rules often violate statute
- Witnesses added for Benghazi hearing