In D.C., temporary means forever; consider helium

David A. Fahrenthold / The Washington Post /

Published Apr 28, 2013 at 05:00AM

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 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.

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.

“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, 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, in the House debate. “That is correct,” said Rep. Fritz Lanham, D-Texas.

That was in 1925.

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.

In 1996, Congress passed a law requiring the reserve to sell off helium until it had paid off a more than $1 billion debt to other agencies. Then its time would be up.

Time is up. The debt will be paid off soon, although the program 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. The gas is valuable in labs because it is stable at very low temperatures. “That would just be chaos.” In recent weeks, Congress has heard a chorus of such worries.