Collins: An ode to helium

New York TimesMay 7, 2013 

Gail Collins

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We have not been paying nearly enough attention to helium legislation.

Seriously. We've been complaining about the way Congress fails at everything except scheduling vacations. So it seems only fair to salute the Responsible Helium Administration and Stewardship Act. The way things are going, it could be the most significant piece of legislation to make it into law this year.

The issue is our helium stockpile, which is scheduled to go out of business. The House approved a bipartisan bill to save the program just before the members — yes! — left town for vacation. The Senate seems inclined to go along, unless, of course, Ted Cruz decides it's a U.N. plot.

The House debate took two days, which some people felt was way more than enough time, given the fact that the final vote was 394-1. The lone “nay” came from Rep. Linda Sanchez of California, who accidentally pressed the wrong button.

Democrats complained that the House could have taken care of helium in an hour, if the Republicans hadn't been afraid of discussing anything else. It's been a tough stretch for Republican leaders, who had set aside several days to debate a plan to improve the Obama health care act, before the rank-and-file rejected the idea on the grounds that it might improve the Obama health care act.

So, helium. “I'm pleased to support this bill, which shows that this tea party Congress will make the tough choice to keep children's birthday parties on schedule and give industries that rely on helium the lift that they deserve,” sniped Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia.

The second most popular theme for speeches, which Johnson ignored, was: Look, helium is not a joke.

“Despite what many think, helium is not just used for party balloons,” said Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington, the Republican who brought the bill to the House floor.

Actually, if you'd heard the entire debate you would have been so impressed with helium that you would be wondering whether it should be wasted on balloons at all. It's used in MRI machines, scientific research, fiber optics, aerospace technology. And it's not all that easy to come by, being the product of slow radioactive decay deep in the earth.

“It's liquid down to absolute zero. You can pour it on MRI magnets. It'll cool those superconductive magnets down. There's nothing else like it,” said Rep. Rush Holt of New Jersey, a physicist who has very strong feelings about helium.

The United States began stockpiling helium after World War I because Congress was worried about catching up with the Germans in the race to build a fleet of dirigibles. Miraculously, despite the Pentagon's affection for continuing to build things that have no earthly use in modern warfare, the government eventually cut back on the blimp program. But it kept the stockpile going at a helium reserve near Amarillo, Texas.

In 1996, during the Newt Gingrich era, Congress voted to go out of the helium business and let private enterprise take over as soon as the reserve paid off the money the government had sunk into it.

Hasn't quite worked out. The debt is almost paid off, but the magic of the marketplace hasn't kicked in. If the reserve closes now, the country loses 40 percent of its helium supply. So, last week, the House voted to extend the program. “Many people don't believe that the federal government should be in the helium business, and I would agree,” said Hastings, as he pushed the bill to keep the government in the helium business.

There are two ways to look at this story. One is that it's about the impossibility of ever actually stopping any government program. Former Rep. Barney Frank, who said in 1996 that if Congress could not manage to get rid of the helium reserve “then we cannot undo anything,” hasn't changed his mind. “Everybody is against waste but strongly defends this or that particular piece,” Frank said in a phone interview.

He's right. I have fond memories of listening to protests after Congress managed, with great effort, to end a totally useless subsidy on mohair. Most of the howls came from lawmakers from Texas, land of many mohair goats. “I have a mohair sweater! It's my favorite one!” cried Republican Lamar Smith. The subsidy came creeping back a few years later.

But there's another possible moral. The helium program is great; it provided the country with a crucial product that business wasn't prepared to produce. It spurred economic growth and scientific research and made enough profit to pay the taxpayers back.

Maybe the only mistake was trying to pull the plug in the first place.

“The federal government going into helium in the 1920s I think was a fine thing,” said Holt. He looks upon the current bill not as a temporary fix but as “a validation” of government's role in looking after things that the private sector is reluctant or afraid to take on.

The helium reserve, by the way, is still going to run dry in five or 10 years. Maybe private enterprise will step up to the plate. But if not, somebody's going to have to organize one hell of a balloon recycling program.

Email Ms. Collins at editorial@nytimes.com.

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