Democratic leaders in the House are confident they will have enough votes for their razor-thin majority to pass a bill later this week aimed at determining whether Big Oil is gouging American consumers.
But skepticism within the caucus is threatening to derail the legislation, which would broaden the Federal Trade Commission’s powers to punish fossil-fuel corporations if Democrats’ claims they are inflating prices at the pump bear fruit.
Chief among the concerns is how the proposal would actually blunt record-high fuel costs, vague language on how to determine what constitutes “price gouging” in a volatile global energy market, and the unintended consequences to small businesses.
Democrats can only afford six defectors.
Rep. Stephanie Murphy, Florida Democrat and co-chair of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition, laid into her own party for failing to see the warning signs of inflation last year and for now using Big Oil as a scapegoat.
“It’s really important that we acknowledge what is really driving inflation and not seek to blame others or vilify particular industries. The only way that we are going to provide the American people with real relief on inflation is if we address the main causes of supply and demand,” said Ms. Murphy, who is against the bill.
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She added that the party should be focused on “legislation that is pragmatic, that can get across the finish line and address the very real issues that my constituents are facing.”
The party leaders are aware of her concerns, Ms. Murphy said, adding that she was unclear whether they would proceed with a vote.
Another Democratic holdout is Rep. Sylvia Garcia of Texas, who represents a Houston district with many workers in the oil and natural-gas industries. Ms. Garcia, who previously expressed caution against alienating voters with rhetoric about price gouging, told The Washington Times she remains undecided.
“We have to protect the consumers, but we have to balance that with our energy needs,” she said.
Still, leaders contend they will have the votes.
“Time and time again, we’ve found a way to deliver legislation with a thin majority,” said Rep. Pete Aguilar of California, vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus. “Having conversations with members, finding the common ground, and building that consensus is what we need.”
The full House is expected to consider the price-gouging proposal Thursday. The legislation was unexpectedly delayed Monday evening from advancing to the full chamber amid the concerns from members.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, had a message for those desiring other action.
“Everybody who says this isn’t enough: If you think it’s good, vote for it and we’ll get more later,” he said. “You can always say it’s not enough, but that’s not a reason for being against it.”
But Democratic skeptics extend beyond the halls of Congress.
Larry Summers, Treasury Secretary under President Clinton and the top economic adviser for President Obama, labeled it “dangerous nonsense” on Bloomberg television.
Ms. Murphy cited Mr. Summers’ opinion for why she opposes the price gouging legislation.
“I recognize he’s the economist that Democrats quote when they like what he says and then poo-poo [him] when they don’t. But he has been the economist that has been most right about inflation,” the Florida Democrat said.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told the CBS program “Face the Nation” on Sunday that he was “not familiar with all of the details” but that there is “guidance going out” on how to crack down on price gouging.
Since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, unveiled the proposal weeks ago, leaders have conceded that it’s essentially a show vote designed to push back against GOP critics who say Democrats are turning a blind eye to sky-high prices.
No Republican support is expected in either chamber, meaning it will fail to reach the 60-vote threshold required in the Senate no matter what happens in the House.
Because Democratic leaders have kiboshed suggestions from members in tough reelection races for a federal gas-tax holiday, Congress will not pass any legislation to combat record-high gas prices for the foreseeable future.
The House will embark on a two-week break from voting beginning next week for Memorial Day.
“It’s our hope that our Republican colleagues, who perhaps are too busy fanning the flames of hatred and xenophobia, will decide to join us on behalf of this country,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, New York Democrat and House Democratic Caucus chairman.
Tuesday marked another all-time high on gas prices, with the national average topping $4.52 per gallon, according to AAA. That’s 44 cents more than a month ago and $1.47 more than one year ago.
Democratic strategists and the party’s vulnerable lawmakers have voiced concerns that they face greater political fallout each day that the midterms get closer and gas prices remain high.
Rep. Haley Stevens, a Michigan Democrat who represents a purple district, suggested the price gouging proposal would help catch the eyes of constituents and that more action will be needed.
“I’m not into messaging [votes], but I do think this is about accountability,” Ms. Stevens told The Washington Times. “These are never single solutions. You can kind of win some attention.”
Rep. Dan Kildee, who like Ms. Stevens is a Michigan Democrat and backs the legislation, said the intent is to provide a potential solution for future energy crises more than to offer direct relief.
“All we know is that if the companies are engaged in gouging at a time when we can least afford it, even if they get away with it for the time being, they shouldn’t get away with it in the long-term,” he said.
In addition to the increased criticism against the Biden administration’s energy policies, House Republicans have used the price gouging legislation to roll out a new line of attack against Democrats.
They have dubbed it “socialism” that is akin to price-fixing under authoritarian regimes.
“Democrats are following the lead of Soviet Russia and Venezuela and failing to learn from our own history,” Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Washington Republican, said during a Rules Committee debate Monday evening. “The promise of America is free enterprise, not socialism, not government price controls.”