Lew Rockwell wasn’t making a joke when he rhetorically asked if El Presidente was calling for “federal oversight of all prices charges by every gas station in America.” Such a program already exists under the jurisdiction of the Federal Trade Commission:
In May 2002, the FTC announced a project to monitor wholesale and retail prices of gasoline in an effort to identify possible anticompetitive activities and determine whether a law enforcement investigation would be warranted. This project tracks retail gasoline prices in some 360 cities across the nation and wholesale (terminal rack) prices in 20 major urban areas. The FTC’s Bureau of Economics staff receives daily data from the Oil Price Information Service (OPIS), a private data collection company, and receives information weekly from the Department of Energy’s public gasoline price hotline. An econometric model is used to determine whether current retail and wholesale prices each week are anomalous in comparison with historical data.
The Monitoring Project alerts FTC staff to unusual changes in gasoline prices so that further inquiry can be undertaken expeditiously. When price increases do not appear to result from market-driven causes, staff consults with the Energy Information Administration of the Department of Energy. FTC staff also contacts the offices of the appropriate state Attorneys General to discuss the anomaly and appropriate potential actions, including the opening of an investigation.
I would note that many politicians find the FTC’s program too pro-industry. The Comptroller General, who works for Congress, blamed gas price increases on the FTC’s “permissiveness” in approving oil industry mergers. And last year a Democratic senator delayed confirmation of FTC Chairman Deborah Majoras because of her previous work as an antitrust lawyer for several oil companies. (Majoras in fact has had to recuse herself from several pending oil cases.) Finally, Charles James, Bush’s first antitrust chief at the Justice Department, is now general counsel at ChevronTexaco.
All of this suggests that Bush’s “anti-gouging” rhetoric is largely for show—especially given that the FTC, to my knowledge, has never actually brought such charges. At the same time, the nexus between the oil industry and regulators demonstrates that antitrust is principally about justifying the careers of prominent antitrust lawyers, and not about protecting markets from “anticompetitive” behavior.