In the midst of a rushed close to Congress, a morass of media coverage concerning the war in Iraq, exploding lobbying scandals in D.C., and the coming holiday season, on December 14th the House of Representatives quietly passed a bill that may substantially impact energy markets. The legislation, H.R. 4473, is usually described as legislation to reauthorize the Commodity Future Trading Commission (CFTC), but in reality it represents much more than an extension of the status quo.
H.R. 4473 includes a number of measures that should be controversial. The language of the legislation would broaden the CFTC's authority to supervise natural gas trades, enhance its responsibilities to investigate potential fraud or price manipulation, and could expand the CFTC's authority to conduct surveillance over all futures contracts. These details have led many experts to criticize the legislation. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, CFTC Commissioner Sharon Brown-Hruska, and a variety of trade associations representing commodity traders all have expressed serious concerns about the language of the bill.
Given this opposition, one would think that there must have been a significant political coalition formed to pass H.R. 4473 in the House. That is not the case. H.R. 4473 was sponsored by one member of the House, Robert Goodlatte (R-VA), had no cosponsors, was not the subject of any committee hearings or reports, and was passed on the floor of the House by voice vote on December 14th. The process used to pass the bill, referred to as passing a bill "on suspension," guarantees that no legislators are individually accountable for legislation because there is no recorded vote.
Unless constituents and industry leaders force Congress to change their approach towards energy issues, it may be the case that re-regulation of energy markets occurs with a whimper, rather than a bang. Whether one supports or opposes deregulation of energy markets, it is fair to demand that Congress confront the issue in a transparent and accountable manner.