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Congress turns its attention to helium


The New York Times had a lengthy report on House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's (R-Va.) struggling rebranding effort the other day, and noted something unexpected at the very end of the article: "[T]he House will turn for the rest of the week to the Responsible Helium Administration and Stewardship Act, which would prevent the scheduled closing of the Federal Helium Reserve later this year."

Congress is working on the Federal Helium Reserve? Actually, yes.

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.

As it turns out, it wasn't that awkward after all.

Policymakers in both parties have been trying to scrap the program for a few decades, arguing that the helium reserves originated in an era when zeppelins were popular and the U.S. military worried about Germany having more blimps than the U.S. And yet, the reserves persevered. This was finally going to be the year of their demise, made all the more likely by the Republicans' push for austerity, but it didn't work out.

Today, the normally divided House took up the measure and voted 394 to 1 to leave the helium reserves intact a little longer. Many lawmakers didn't want to keep the program going, but recognizing that the private sector hasn't stepped up -- a problem compounded by a 1996 screw-up that caused widespread helium shortages -- and the fact that helium really is used for scientific research, medical treatments, and semiconductor plants, Congress couldn't pull the trigger.

For now, the Federal Helium Reserve lives on.

Update: Just to clarify one thing, Congress really is getting closer to its goal -- no one in either chamber is eager to defend the program -- and under this new bill, the government will continue to sell helium reserves in an effort to raise prices and create private-sector demand.