On the question of Helium and the United States Congress


Helium Monument – Amarillo, Texas

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 United Nations 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 to 1. The lone “nay” came from Representative Linda Sanchez of California, who accidentally pressed the wrong button…

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 M.R.I. 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…

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…

…Former Representative Barney Frank…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…

The helium reserve, by the way, is still going to run dry in five or 10 years

If the medical-industrial complex screams loud enough, surely all the Congress-flunkies on their payroll will introduce special legislation making the disappearance of profitable quantities of helium a national emergency. The NY TIMES will editorialize against buying helium from China. Rand Paul will filibuster the lack of individual freedom for helium atoms to disperse into the atmosphere.

All’s right with the world.

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2 comments

  1. Invisible Mikey

    I’m guessing you aren’t aware that the diagnostic modality of MRI is completely dependent upon using liquid helium to super-cool the magnets. If the helium runs out, we go back to x-ray and CT for everything, and people get radiated, we can’t do any more soft-tissue scanning (cardiac imaging, spinal disk imaging), and we’ll have to start cutting people open again for “exploratory” surgery like we did before the 1990s. It’s quite a serious situation.

    • eideard

      Perfectly aware of those question – and non-regressive solutions that don’t require subsidies for folks not becoming sufficiently wealthy from cattle feedlots.

      In addition, the monument is a pleasant spot for takeout lunch as long as there aren’t too many skateboarders.

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