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House Approves Criminal Penalties For Gasoline Price Gouging

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would give the Federal Trade Commission more authority to probe price profiteering from gasoline and other refined products. Violators would face criminal penalties and fines.

With average U.S. pump prices at an all-time, inflation-adjusted high of $3.22 a gallon, the House voted 284-141 on the "Federal Price Gouging Protection Act," which bans sellers from charging prices that are "unconscionably excessive," or take "unfair advantage" of consumers.

The bill, which the Bush administration has threatened to veto, is meant to prevent gasoline stations from running up prices in the face of a catastrophe like the hurricanes that hit the Gulf Coast region in 2005.

Bill sponsor Rep. Bart Stupak, Michigan Democrat, said the legislation is "a first step in addressing the outrageous prices we are seeing at the gas pump."

The bill would give the FTC "the explicit authority to investigate and punish those who artificially inflate the price of energy," and require offenders to pay triple damages or up to $3 million for charging "unconscionable prices."

Some Republicans said the bill sets vague definitions of what price would qualify as "unconscionable" and would be tough to enforce.

"It's a flawed bill - the definitions are not there," said Rep. Joe Barton, Texas Republican. Oil industry trade groups also oppose the bill, saying high prices have come from market conditions, not manipulation.

The White House meanwhile argued the bill creates a "vague and arbitrary regulatory regime," which would spur lawsuits and maybe even "bring back long gas lines reminiscent of the 1970s."

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