A droll old English butler once told the Dark Knight that "some men just want to watch the world burn." The ends they pursue aren't coherent. Their objectives are inscrutable to rational men. They sow chaos, because it is a faith unto itself. Alfred was talking about the Joker, but these words might equally apply to Ted Cruz, the junior senator from Texas.
On Thursday, the U.S. Senate was prepared to vote by unanimous consent on a measure that would keep the country's helium reservoir outside of Amarillo running. Why should you care about helium, you ask? If you're a welder, you should care. If you manufacture fiber-optic cables or semiconductors, you should care. If you've torn your ACL and you need an MRI, you need it to cool the machine's superconducting magnets. The reservoir in Texas contains a third or more of the world's helium, and any disruption to its operation would send shock waves through vast sectors of the economy. As of now, the supply valves will be shut off by October 1 if Congress doesn't act. At that point, the federal government, which has administered the reservoir since World War I for national defense purposes, loses its authorization. Like the fiscal cliff our lawmakers race toward repeatedly, this is an eminently preventable self-inflicted wound.
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The legislation on deck in the House and in the Senate are a bit different. In the House, the $500 million in revenues generated by the reservoir would go toward the national debt, though it would leave some control in the hands of the federal government. The Senate bill, on the other hand, would phase the feds out completely in five years, but instead devotes some $50 million to the debt, funneling the rest to underfunded programs, like the remediation of abandoned mines, and addressing a maintenance backlog in our national parks.
The Senate sought to pass an amended bill by unanimous consent as a palatable substitute to the House bill. The only thing standing in its way was Cruz. The use of that revenue for anything other than paying down our debt was to him unacceptable. Never mind the $500 million generated by the reservoir over 10 years amounts to less than 2 percent of the interest expense on our national debt FOR THE MONTH OF AUGUST.
He still voted against a bill that would prevent a catastrophic interruption to whole sectors of the economy to burnish his fiscal-conservative credentials, which would result in the elimination of the merest fraction of monthly interest expense.
In the grand scheme of the helium legislation, Cruz's opposition comes to nothing. The Senate passed the substitute nearly unanimously Thursday afternoon (97-2, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama rode Cruz' coattails) and the House will vote on it next. Either they approve it or they amend it, and it goes to conference or back to the Senate floor. But the bipartisan will to see the thing done is resolute and overwhelming.