WASHINGTON The House, eager to do something about record high gasoline prices in advance of the Memorial Day weekend, voted narrowly Wednesday to approve stiff penalties for those found guilty of gasoline price gouging.
The bill directs the Federal Trade Commission and Justice Department to go after oil companies, traders or retail operators if they take unfair advantage or charge unconscionably excessive prices for gasoline and other fuels.
The White House called the measure a form of price controls that could result in fuel shortages. It said President Bush would be urged to veto the legislation should it pass Congress.
The bill needed the approval of two-thirds of the members of the House because the leadership considered it under an expedited legislative process. Thus, the 284-141 vote was only one over the threshold for passage. A similar measure is being considered by the Senate.
The bill would for the first time create a federal law making energy price gouging illegal. It would cover not only gasoline, but also other fuels such as natural gas and heating oil.
Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., its chief sponsor, in urging his colleagues to support the bill said the issue was whether to side with Big Oil (or) ... side with consumers who are being ripped off at the gas pump.
But Stupak was forced to soften the bill so that he could get it passed by requiring a president to first declare an energy emergency before the anti-gouging law could be enforced. Oil-state Democrats had wanted such limits.
The bill calls for criminal penalties of up to $150 million for corporations and up to $2 million and a jail sentence of up to 10 years for individuals found to be engaged in price gouging.
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