Why Washington can't cut the budget: Ex. #987
This is so unbelievable that it fits in with the notion that Washington lives in a fantasyland. In any other universe, The Federal Helium program - begun when zeppelins were criss crossing the sky - refuses to die despite the efforts of presidents going back to Ronald Reagan.
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"If we cannot at this point dispense with the helium reserve -- the purpose of which is no longer valid -- then we cannot undo anything," then-Rep.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.
There isn't a single entrepreneur willing to take the place of government in selling helium?
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).
Despite widespread agreement that this program has got to go, Congress won't bite the bullet and kill it. A remarkable demonstration of what WaPo calls the "zombielike" attributes of government programs.