For an amazing example of how hard it is to kill a federal program, take a look at today's New York Times article on the Federal Helium Reserve. The Times article doesn't really frame it this way, but the story is essentially this: In 1925, Congress created a federal helium program to make sure that what was then called the Department of War had enough helium to fill the blimps and dirigibles that it used at the time. In 1996, the Gingrich-led Congress, observing that blimps and dirigibles had been surpassed by satellites, drones, and stealth bombers, voted to get the federal government out of the helium business.
Now, the Times reports, "In 1996, Congress passed a law to privatize the Amarillo helium by requiring the federal government to sell nearly all of its reserves. But the law expires at the end of 2014, years before the sell-off will be complete." Some in Congress want to extend the deadline; Senator Bingaman opened a hearing on the topic last week with a statement that observed, "Helium is critical to a wide range of industrial, scientific and medical markets, including medical devices such as MRIs, industrial welding, high tech manufacturing of microchips and fiber optic cables, manufacturing of magnets for wind turbines, space exploration at NASA, and many other important scientific research activities that are conducted at laboratories around the country...if Congress does not act, the helium program will disappear altogether in less than three years, leaving our hospitals, national labs, domestic manufacturers and helium producers without an adequate supply."
MRIs and NASA did not exist in 1925, and whatever windmills existed ran without helium-manufactured magnets. Instead of allowing the program to go out of existence, the politicians and bureaucrats, after slow-walking the program's elimination, now keep dreaming up new reasons it must continue to exist. Compare it to the private sector. If a company decides it is going to close or sell a business or a factory, it usually manages to do that in a matter of months — maybe five years at the absolute most.
As for the claim that without congressional action the helium supply will be inadequate, somehow the price mechanism manages to match supply with demand in many non-helium parts of the economy without congressional action.
As far as federal programs that one thought had been killed only to rise (a little helium joke there) again, this one is right up there with the mohair subsidy. It's a classic example of what Milton Friedman called "concentrated benefits and dispersed costs." The helium and mohair issues are high priority to those receiving subsidies, to those working in the programs, and to the congressmen who have facilities in their districts. To the rest of us, it is an annoyance, but it's a small enough annoyance that it's probably not something you are going to march on Washington against, or spend a lot of money lobbying to stop.