House Speaker Pelosi and other prominent Democrats today asked the FTC to investigate record high gas and oil prices, in the latest sign of partisan wrangling ahead of the summer driving season. Democrats want the commission to initiate immediately a rule implementing language in the energy bill signed into law in December that gives the agency authority to investigate and levy penalties against companies suspected of manipulating oil supply and prices. “Congress provided this authority to the FTC four months ago — but to date, the FTC has failed to exercise its power to protect consumers from skyrocketing energy costs,” said the letter, which was sent to FTC Chairman William Kovacic and signed by seven Democrats, including Pelosi and House Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell.
The Democrats’ letter argues that the new authority would “substantially strengthen consumer protections against high energy prices” as well as “help lower and stabilize prices, increase market transparency, and provide Americans with confidence that retail gasoline and diesel prices are free from the influence of anti-competitive practices and the exercise of market power.” It is the latest example of finger-pointing across party lines as gas prices reached another record of $3.55 a gallon Thursday. Prices are likely to peak in the summer months, and Pelosi Thursday asked President Bush to suspend filling the strategic petroleum reserve to help free up domestic supply, a request that Senate Democrats have also made. Pelosi claimed this move would lower gas prices by 4 to 24 cents a gallon. But the Energy Department has not deviated from its plan to expand the reserve’s capacity to use during emergency supply shortages.
Meanwhile, Republicans have embarked on a campaign to put Pelosi to task for not releasing a “common sense” plan to reduce gas prices that she promised two years ago. This strategy has included floor speeches and a coordinated effort to get House Republican candidates to bring up the issue in their campaigns. The flurry of activity is not likely to yield much legislative ground, as Democrats focus on trying to get the Bush administration to use its existing authority on the petroleum reserve and other potential short-term solutions. Senate Majority Leader Reid is interested in offering a package of ideas from several committees to address gas prices before lawmakers head home for a Memorial Day recess. But the package may merely include ideas that Democrats have not been able to get past White House veto threats this Congress, including making price gouging a federal crime. House Democrats appear likely to stand pat with legislation they have already passed in that chamber, including price-gouging legislation and repealing billions in oil and gas industry tax incentives.
This article appears in the April 26, 2008, edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.