How high will it go? We're not talking about the price of a gallon of gas when you pull in to the service station to fill your tank. We're talking about the level of congressional anxiety fueled by the price at the pump.
Members of the House and Senate are returning to Capitol Hill from their two-week Easter recess, and their constituents have given them an earful. An ABC News/Washington Post poll released during the break indicated that 70 percent of respondents believed that the price of gas was causing financial hardship to their families. Forty-four percent said it was a "serious" hardship.
Over the last month, the average cost of a gallon of regular gasoline has risen 40 cents, premium has risen 44 cents and diesel fuel 27 cents, according to American Automobile Association.
Feeling the political heat, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., have sent President Bush a letter, asking him to direct the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission to "investigate any potential collusion, price-fixing or gouging in the sale or distribution of gasoline, petroleum distillates or ethanol in wholesale or retail markets."
The Republican leaders also want the Commodities Futures Trading Commission to determine "whether spikes in prices of oil, gasoline and other petroleum distillates are the result of improper market manipulation by traders or energy firms."
Questioning Corporate Profits
As the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee began a series of hearings on implementing last year's energy bill, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., issued a statement charging that "big oil and gas companies wrote the Republican energy bill, and the American people have paid the price."
And Senate Democratic leaders clamor for a windfall profits tax.
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said in a floor speech, "If the greedy oil companies won't invest their billions in profits in delivering affordable domestic fuels for America, then maybe America needs to take some of the windfall profits and put them to better use."
In previous Capitol Hill appearances, oil industry executives have been unapologetic for their companies' record profits. But the recent revelation that former Exxon Mobil Chairman Lee Raymond walked away with a $400 million pension package may have changed that.
House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton, R-Texas, has ordered hearings into refinery outages and how oil companies invest their profits. "It troubles me that a CEO receives a $400 million retirement package while refinery capacity continues to lag behind demand in this country," he said.
One House GOP aide suggested that oil company executives may be called before Congress again to explain the sharp increase in gas prices at a time of record corporate profits.