(CNSNews.com) - The House of Representatives Wednesday approved a bill that expands the Federal Trade Commission's authority over the price of gas and the industry's profits, but trade groups criticized the measure, which the Bush administration earlier threatened to veto.
Passed by a vote of 284 to 141, the Federal Price Gouging Protection Act prohibits prices that are "unconscionably excessive" and take "unfair advantage" of consumers. Some Republicans argued the bill's definition of "unconscionable" is vague and that the measure would be difficult to enforce.
If found guilty of price-gouging, violators could be required to pay three times the damages or up to $3 million.
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), called the measure "a first step in addressing the outrageous prices we are seeing at the gas pump."
Minority Whip Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said that those who gouge consumers at the gas pumps should be prosecuted "to the fullest extent of the law."
But, he warned, "unfortunately, the bill brought forth by House Democratic leadership today was written so poorly and included so few details that small retailers and local service station operators could be thrown in jail without knowingly committing a crime."
Blunt said Congress should work hard to bring down gas prices, adding that instead of helping consumers by expanding refining capacity or increasing energy supply, House Democrats believe "the answer to affordable energy will be found by imposing stiff criminal penalties on those who are deemed 'price-gougers' - without ever defining what that term means."
"In reality, their efforts will have precisely the opposite effect," Blunt said.
Oil industry trade groups criticized the bill and the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association called on the Senate "to consider the unintended consequences should it debate this or a similar bill."
American Petroleum Institute (API) president and CEO Red Cavaney called the bill "a flawed political solution to a matter that needs a long-term, viable solution, which includes increased energy efficiency, enhanced access to traditional, domestic oil resources, and diversification of energy supplies."
API chief economist John Felmy told a recent House Judiciary Committee hearing that higher gas prices were not being driven by market failure or market manipulation but were "a symptom of larger energy challenges facing the nation and must be addressed in other ways."
The White House also warned that the bill can "bring back long gas lines, reminiscent of the 1970s."
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