WASHINGTON — Top Democrats in Congress tried to tie a recent rise in gasoline prices to President Donald Trump as the summer driving season approaches and the fall’s midterm elections follow soon after.
Standing in front of an Exxon station blocks from Capitol Hill, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., made the case that Trump’s decision to end U.S. participation in the Iran nuclear deal brokered by his predecessor, President Barack Obama, is constraining global oil supply and forcing motorists to tighten their belts before the Memorial Day weekend.
“President Trump’s reckless decision to pull out of the Iran deal has led to higher oil prices,” Schumer told reporters. “These higher oil prices are translating directly to soaring gas prices, something we know hurts middle- and lower-income people.”
The gas station news conference is just the latest chapter in a long history of Washington lawmakers making hay out of the price at the pump whenever it creeps up — even as energy analysts argue that U.S. presidents possess little power to set global oil prices.
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Trump, Democrats’ target on Wednesday, is a veteran of this blame game. Before entering politics, Trump repeatedly faulted Obama on Twitter for high gas prices during his presidency. In 2012 Trump tweeted:
“Gas prices are about to hit a record high during the Labor Day weekend. @BarackObama could have stopped this.”
“Things are getting more and more charged,” said Patrick DeHaan, a petroleum analyst at GasBuddy.com. He added, “Then again, D.C. is all about politicizing everything.”
This year, the price of a barrel of oil — and subsequently, a gallon of gas — has risen because of events abroad.
The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), a cartel of petroleum-producing nations dominated by Saudi Arabia, along with non-member Russia have worked together to cut production (they could ease up on it soon) while, on the other side of the world, oil production in Venezuela has plummeted as the country sinks into economic crisis.
As a result, analysts from both AAA and GasBuddy.com say the United States will see its highest summer gasoline prices since 2014.
The price of gasoline at the Exxon station chosen as a backdrop by Senate Democrats was $3.89 per gallon – or about 22 percent higher than the average Washington, D.C. that day, according to GasBuddy.
According to the website, that station had the highest price for regular gasoline in all of Washington – though it is also one of the closest fill-up stations to the Capitol Building. On Wednesday, GasBuddy’s national average was $2.96 per gallon.
Schumer along with three of his fellow Senate Democrats – Maria Cantwell of Washington, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Edward Markey of Massachusetts – also sent a letter to Trump asking him to pressure OPEC into increasing world oil supplies.
“The current run up in world oil prices is effectively a tax on every American family’s discretionary budget, except that the money goes to the OPEC cartel rather than the U.S. Treasury,” the senators wrote to Trump.
Republicans quickly called foul on Democrats for encouraging oil drilling abroad while trying to stall it at home.
“I agree that OPEC’s supply restrictions are driving prices higher and should be addressed, but I was stunned to hear my colleagues encouraging more production from the likes of Iran and Saudi Arabia, rather than right here in America, as the solution,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement.
Murkowski led the successful effort in the Senate to open a coastal plain in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in her home state to oil and gas drilling, a decision widely opposed by the chamber’s Democrats.
“This is pretty simple,” she added. “If you don’t support access, leasing, production, pipelines, refineries, or the reasonable regulation of all of those, you’ll be left at the mercy of countries that don’t like us.”
Schumer’s newfound defense of the Iran deal is a turn from his opposition to it in 2015, arguing back then that it would strengthen Iran by boosting its economy and ultimately may not prevent it from developing a nuclear bomb. Schumer has since called on Trump to stay in the multilateral agreement.
Pulling out of the Iran deal has so far added “only a couple cents a gallon” to the price of gasoline, according to DeHaan.
“It certainly could have held an explosive potential, but it’s proved to be sort of a dud,” DeHaan said. That is because U.S. allies have been apprehensive about applying their own sanctions on Iranian oil, keeping it in the global market, he added.
Yet the impact of the higher gas prices, whatever the reasons, is still being felt by U.S. drivers. A recent Goldman Sachs analysis, cited by Senate Democrats, found that the uptick in oil prices could wipe out the benefit of the GOP’s tax cuts.
If drivers indeed feel such an effect, it may make it harder for congressional Republicans to place their reelection chances on touting the tax breaks.
“I guarantee you,” Cantwell said at the news conference, “what they got in the tax break just got washed away in higher fuel prices.”