I was conducting a class recently for some bright undergrads about running for public elective office and we used the state government budget to learn about what gets funded, how it gets funded, why it gets funded and what doesn’t get funded.
After the class, a student came up to me and said: “You know, I have always thought of myself as a solid liberal ― but not every government program is absolutely essential, is it?”
Good for him. He will go far.
I have long believed I could help every liberal become a solid fiscal conservative ― if they would only walk with me line-by-line through the untold thousands of programs in the 2,200-page federal budget appendix which is published every year.
I once asked the Congressional Budget Office for a list of all federal programs and a second list of all federal programs which have been eliminated over time. “We don’t know how many federal programs there are in the budget,” the CBO budget expert told me on the phone, “and we don’t think any federal program has ever been fully deleted from existence outside of a relatively short-lived emergency, mostly wartime programs.”
“No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size. Government programs, once launched, never disappear. Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth,” Ronald Reagan said in his must-read classic speech, “A Time For Choosing” at the 1964 GOP Convention in the Cow Palace south of San Francisco.
The saga of the Federal Helium Reserve program proves Reagan’s wisdom. It is truly a “crappy” federal program and waste of money that should not receive any taxpayer support. Helium production should be completely done in the private sector by enterprising entrepreneurs.
Launched in 1925, the reserve was set up to store helium derived from drilling for natural gas near Amarillo, Texas. The reserve now has roughly 1 billion cubic meters, or about 170,000,000 kilograms, of helium gas.
Why was helium considered so important that Congress felt it was in the national best interest to establish a federal helium reserve in the first place?
Blimps, otherwise known as dirigibles, are lighter than air when filled with helium. During World War I in Europe, dirigibles were found to be invaluable for military reconnaissance purposes over enemy lines, operating just beyond artillery fire from the ground. However, the Great War ended in 1918 and improved aviation technology swiftly rendered the era of dirigibles for military purposes moot after a mere few years.
In the infinite wisdom of Congress, someone, probably the chair of the defense appropriations committee ― who was most likely from Amarillo, Texas ― decided America should store helium “just in case” we needed a lot of it in the future for some reason.
For 70 years, from 1925 to 1995, congressional members allocated millions of taxpayer dollars to the federal helium reserve. Perhaps the party balloon lobby had something to do with it ― federally- subsidized helium made all those balloons cheaper to buy for birthday parties and celebrations for decades.
Under the leadership of then-Republican Leader Dick Armey of Texas, Congress finally passed the Helium Privatization Act of 1996 which directed the Department of Interior to sell off helium reserves and then leave it to the private sector to produce and store helium, not the federal government.
Guess what? The Federal Helium Reserve is still operational today in 2023. It is the Michael Myers of the federal budget. It keeps coming back to life and will not go away.
One way to determine if any federal program is “worth keeping” or not is to ask this question: “Would I want my money going to support such a program?” If the answer is no, then it probably should not be funded by the federal government. It should be funded by the private sector or any number of charitable organizations.
Each federal domestic discretionary, defense and entitlement program is in desperate need of massive reform and restructuring; reduction or outright elimination. With perpetual $1 trillion-plus annual deficits staring us in the face adding to the existing $31 trillion of accumulated debt already, eliminating every “crappy” federal program is a must-do by every congressional representative and U.S. senator.
Start with the Federal Helium Reserve.