WASHINGTON, D.C. — When Congress returns to Washington today after a weeklong breather, the collective grumbling of millions of American motorists will compel lawmakers to prove they're doing something — anything — to fight rising gasoline prices.
So this week, Congress will take on an obscure commodities market. Some oil experts say congressional action could have an immediate impact.
Analysts are increasingly blaming the high prices on excessive oil speculation. They contend that banks and other investors are driving up prices, pushing the cost of a barrel of oil to $60 or $70 beyond its actual value.
Several bills in Congress call for new regulations, more investigators and transparency to let inspectors know who's trading what behind closed doors. The Agriculture Committee will hold hearings to sift through the ideas.
For months now, Congress has been arguing about whether to trim Big Oil's profits, give tax breaks for alternative energy or start drilling along the nation's coastlines.
Meanwhile, oil prices continued to soar, hitting a record of $145 a barrel Thursday at the start of the holiday weekend, as motorists were shelling out more than $4 for a gallon of gas.
"It is no wonder that we hear cries of alarm," said Edward Krapels, a special adviser with Energy Security Analysis of Wakefield, Mass.
U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge, a North Carolina Democrat, hopes Congress will finally take action.
"One good thing that all this is doing, with all the pain we're getting, it's forcing a lot of folks to be doing some real thinking up here," said Etheridge, who is chairman of a key agriculture subcommittee that oversees oil trading.
Some experts told Congress recently that half the recent jump in oil prices may be caused by excessive speculation.
Speculators are the banks and other investors who buy oil futures on the commodities market -- not to use fuel the way airlines and trucking companies do, but to make profits when their predictions about prices come true.
The market has exploded in popularity. Its trading volume this year is estimated to be nearly six times as much as in 2000.
Much of the trading is regulated overseas, with almost no transparency for United States regulators. So no one here knows who's trading or whether market manipulation and excessive speculation are actually occurring.
There is a flurry of bills in both the House and the Senate -- including one from Etheridge -- that aim to tackle the oil futures market. Among the changes the bills would require:
-- Forcing the government watchdog agency, the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, to hire 100 new regulators. The agency is at the lowest staff level in its 33-year history.
-- Getting rid of the "Enron loophole" that allowed the now-infamous company to manipulate the California energy market.
-- Requiring the trades on the foreign Intercontinental Exchange to be regulated by U.S. investigators. Those trades now make up 30 percent of the market and are overseen by British regulators in what's known as the "London loophole."
-- Increasing reporting requirements to boost transparency about who's trading.
-- Limiting hedge trading and speculating on futures.
-- Raising the "margin requirements," or the down payment, for speculators making bets on the futures market.