Top congressional Democrats on Thursday said they are putting the final touches on legislation that would require the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether Big Oil is ripping off Americans at the pump.
“Democrats are moving forward with forceful action that will stop and hold accountable oil and gas companies for profiteering and manipulating markets,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, told reporters.
The revelation comes as Democrats frantically search for ways to bring down sky-high gasoline prices ahead of the midterm elections in November. They have increasingly turned their ire toward major energy companies, which they accuse of running up record profits for investors at the expense of consumers, as well as toward Russian President Vladimir Putin for increasing prices with his decision to invade Ukraine.
Republicans have said it is the policies of the Biden administration hostile to domestic energy production that are to blame for the record-high prices. Democrats say the proposed price-gouging probe by the FTC would put the GOP on the defensive politically.
“When the bills hit the floor, Republicans will face a dilemma,” said Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat. “Which side are they on — the consumer and lowering gas prices, or on the side of Big Oil? We’ll soon find out.”
Republicans likened the effort to a desperate bid to deflect responsibility for poor poll numbers and soaring energy costs, the latter of which were rising before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but were exacerbated by the conflict.
“Pathetic attempts to blame Putin and oil companies for Biden’s failure underscores just how little they care about Americans struggling to fill up their gas tanks,” said Republican National Committee spokesman William O’Grady. “This is Biden’s gas hike.”
The legislation, which Democrats hope to pass in the coming weeks but have no official timeline, will require broad buy-in from members of the party. Democrats in the House and Senate have advocated for similar proposals to force the FTC‘s hand, but they remain divided on how to try to blunt prices, according to House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer.
Democrats are considering “four or five options,” the Maryland Democrat told reporters Wednesday.
“As soon as we have a consensus, which we do not now have, we will move on those,” he said. “Gas prices, which consumers confront once or twice a week, are very substantial, are very concerning, and we want to see them come down.”
House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries, New York Democrat, also underscored this week that the politically sensitive price of gas has been a top concern among members.
Among the other options Democrats have considered are a windfall profits tax on oil companies, a gas tax holiday and direct payments to strapped consumers. But none has garnered as much wide-ranging support in the party as pushing a probe into market manipulation.
Mrs. Pelosi has called a holiday on federal gas taxes, which many vulnerable Democratic members have especially pushed for, a public relations stunt. She cited concerns that the tax suspension would leave a budget shortfall for infrastructure projects and potentially would not be passed down to drivers.
“The pros are that it’s good PR — you’re asking about it,” Mrs. Pelosi said.
Mandating an FTC investigation echoes a request from Mr. Biden to the commission in November 2021 to probe whether oil companies were price gouging. He said in a letter at the time that there was “mounting evidence of anti-consumer behavior by oil and gas companies.”
It’s not clear whether the FTC has or is considering acting. The panel has been largely deadlocked with a 2-2 split due to an open seat, which Senate Democrats hope to fill in the coming days or weeks by confirming Biden nominee Alvaro Bedoya.
The Functional Government Initiative, an independent watchdog group, said last month it believed the FTC may already be investigating or seriously considering a gas price investigation because the organization’s public records request regarding Mr. Biden’s letter was denied as part of a deliberative and pre-decisional process.
The Democrats‘ FTC proposal, if enacted, is not expected to produce any near-term relief — if ever — given the nature of such federal investigations. Mrs. Pelosi appeared to recognize that when pressed by a reporter. “It’s about making change for now and for the future,” she said.