House Democrats narrowly approved a bill Thursday that would require a federal investigation into accusations that the oil industry is bilking drivers, marking the first piece of legislation that Democrats on Capitol Hill have approved, in an effort to address sky-high prices at the pump.
The measure, which would force the Federal Trade Commission to probe whether oil corporations are manipulating the market and should be penalized, passed 217-207.
Four Democrats defected to vote against the legislation. They were a mixture of moderates in competitive races and representatives of energy-rich states. The quartet was Reps. Lizzie Fletcher of Texas, Stephanie Murphy of Florida, Kathleen Rice of New York and Jared Golden of Maine.
Ms. Fletcher said focusing on price gouging was “not the answer” in the face of the high demand and low global supply that has caused the exorbitant prices.
“The Consumer Fuel Price Gouging Prevention Act would not fix high gasoline prices at the pump, and has the potential to exacerbate the supply shortage our country is facing, leading to even worse outcomes,” she said in a statement.
House Democrats could have only afforded six defections had all Republicans voted against the bill (though five did not vote at all).
Despite their razor-thin majority and the four Democratic opponents to the bill, leadership was successful in winning over enough of the holdouts to get it across the finish line. But the difficulties convincing several within its caucus underscored the precarious spot many Democrats are in as the midterm elections draw near and inflation runs rampant.
Gas prices have reached new daily records for more than a week, with the national average topping $4.59 per gallon Thursday, according to AAA.
The White House revealed this week that it will ease some economic sanctions on Venezuela to promote negotiations with Chevron to import oil, fueling Republicans’ criticisms that the Biden administration is running to authoritarian regimes rather than domestic producers.
The bill now heads to the Senate, where Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, has promised a vote. However, it’s unlikely to pass because of a lack of GOP support and it needs 60 votes to pass.
Chief among their concerns of Democrats who opposed the bill were that it would have no impact on fuel costs, the vagueness of what constitutes “price gouging” and unintended economic consequences of implementing price controls.
Ms. Murphy told reporters earlier in the week that her colleagues should instead focus on “pragmatic” solutions that can “get across the finish line and address the very real issues that my constituents are facing.”
In the run-up to the vote, it was unclear whether top Democrats could sway enough of their rank-and-file. Leaders marketed the legislation to skeptical members by arguing that something is better than nothing.
“The fact that it might take a little while to implement is not a reason not to do it when they are exploiting the market in the manner in which they are,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat. “We will do this and other things to help the price at the pump… This is for the ongoing: stop price gouging of the American people.”
Republicans have said the legislation is akin to socialism. Adding to the pressure on skeptical House Democrats, outside groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce indicated they will include the vote on their annual “How They Voted” scorecard to portray those who supported it as anti-business or anti-energy.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said it was hypocritical to go after energy companies only when supply is short and prices are high. The Kentucky Republican said the bill would be dead on arrival.
“I understand the House is wasting its time pretending that inflation is all the fault of evil corporate profiteers,” he said. “I guess the profit motive hadn’t been invented yet in 2019 when Republicans had unemployment low and inflation low at the very same time.”
Energy analysts have scoffed at the price-gouging legislation. The real cause, they have long said, is the simple supply-and-demand logic of exiting a pandemic and associated shutdowns, which has been exacerbated by the war in Ukraine and countries ditching Russian oil.
Patrick De Haan, founder of the fuel-price tracking service GasBuddy, tweeted that a more appropriate name for the legislation would have been the “are you clueless on economics bill.”
• Ramsey Touchberry can be reached at email@example.com.
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