House Passes Fuel Price-Gouging Measure

Republican concerns over price controls echoed by prominent economists

House Passes Fuel Price-Gouging Measure
Prices for gas at an Exxon gas station on Capitol Hill are seen March 14, 2022. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Nathan Worcester

The House of Representatives passed the Consumer Fuel Price Gouging Prevention Act by a vote of 217–207 on May 19, moving the country closer to greater government involvement in energy markets as gasoline prices soar to new heights.

The legislation, H.R. 7688, would allow President Joe Biden to declare an “energy emergency.”

Such an emergency would empower the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to target people who sell fuel at a price that's judged to be “unconscionably excessive” or that “indicates the seller is exploiting the circumstances related to an energy emergency to increase prices unreasonably.”

That presidential emergency proclamation would last 30 days, but could be renewed indefinitely “as the president deems appropriate.”

The measure would also prioritize FTC enforcement actions against firms with $500 million or more in annual wholesale or retail consumer fuel sales.

While 217 Democrats voted for the legislation, 203 Republicans and four Democrats voted against it.

During the debate, Democrats and Republicans clashed over the causes of record-high gasoline prices.

While Republicans emphasized new regulations and decisions against domestic energy under the Biden administration, Democrats pointed out that record-breaking energy prices have been accompanied by billions of dollars in profit for oil and gas firms.

“Our residents are so fed up with corporate greed,” said Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), a supporter of the measure.

Tlaib spoke in front of a large poster that listed the 2021 profits of various large oil companies, including Shell and Chevron.

Republican John Joyce (R-Pa.) stood beside a poster that illustrated the long lines of cars at gas stations during the 1970s, when the United States implemented price controls in an attempt to deal with rising gas prices caused by OPEC’s oil embargo.

The poster was labeled “Socialist Price Fixing.”

“Instead of creating price controls that would lead to less production and massive gas shortages, we need to rely on the energy that lies beneath the feet of my constituents in Pennsylvania,” Joyce said.

Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.) ran through a laundry list of Biden administration actions that he said contributed to the rise in gas prices. These included the cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline and the Securities and Exchange Commission’s climate-related disclosure proposal.

As Armstrong noted, the Biden administration already pushed the FTC to investigate rising gas prices late last year.

Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) said House Republicans were mischaracterizing the scope of the legislation.

“We’re not giving the FTC the authority to set the price.”

Yet the legislation itself defines violations in terms of “unconscionably excessive” prices, raising questions about how the benchmark for such a judgment would be set and by whom.

Pallone also claimed that “the problem is oil companies don’t want to increase production.”

“You cannot ask oil and gas companies, particularly onshore companies, to increase production when the infrastructure doesn’t exist to get that product to market,” Armstrong said during his own testimony, citing the Duke pipeline and other pipeline projects that have been scuttled in recent years.

Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) attempted to recommit the measure to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, addressing concerns raised by that committee’s ranking member, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.). His motion failed by a vote of 220–201.

The House also passed two amendments to the legislation.

The first, introduced by Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.), would mandate an FTC investigation into alleged price gouging, including through cuts to refinery capacity. It passed by a 217–205 vote.

The second, introduced by Chris Pappas (D-N.H.), creates a new FTC unit to monitor fuel markets. It passed by a vote of 214–207.

The Sierra Club, an environmental organization aligned with the Democratic Party, praised the measure on social media, tagging their Twitter post with the hashtag #blamebigoil.

Tim Stewart, president of the U.S. Oil & Gas Association, said the legislation's language is vague, setting a troubling precedent.

“The poorly written bill gives the president discretion to declare that gasoline or diesel fuel is ‘unconscionably excessive’ and to determine if your neighborhood gas station is guilty of exploiting an ‘energy emergency,’" Stewart told The Epoch Times. "None of these terms are defined, so they can mean whatever the president says, and these price controls can be continued indefinitely.

“This should set off alarm bells across all industries and markets, because while today might the price of gasoline ... tomorrow’s ‘unconscionably excessive’ pricing might apply to anything from the price of wheat to health care to airfare to housing.”

Prominent Democratic economists, including Harvard professor Larry Summers and former Obama administration economist Jason Furman, have also voiced concerns about the legislation, with Furman describing it as “dangerous misguided nonsense” on Twitter.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) didn't respond to requests for comment by press time regarding how they intend to vote on any Senate version of the legislation.

Nathan Worcester covers national politics for The Epoch Times and has also focused on energy and the environment. Nathan has written about everything from fusion energy and ESG to Biden's classified documents and international conservative politics. He lives and works in Chicago. Nathan can be reached at [email protected].