WASHINGTON — With Americans furious at sky-high gasoline prices and tax breaks for "Big Oil" under fire, a key US Senate committee put five senior oil executives in the dock on Thursday.
The bosses of Chevron, Shell US, BP America, ConocoPhillips, and ExxonMobil appeared before the powerful Senate Finance Committee, facing allegations they bank record profits at taxpayers' expense.
President Barack Obama and his Democratic allies are calling for an end to $2 billion a year in tax breaks for the biggest players in an industry enjoying record profits.
"Businesses should make a profit -- that's what drives our economy -- but do these very profitable companies actually need taxpayer subsidies?" committee chairman and Democrat Max Baucus asked pointedly.
He quickly answered his own question. "We can put this money to better use -- and we should."
"We should use this money to reduce our deficit instead of putting the burden on seniors and on our children's future."
Democrats who control the committee are hoping to channel public anger at high pump prices -- which have increased around 37 percent in the last year -- as their gaze begins to drift toward the 2012 election campaign.
But the oil industry came out swinging.
First to speak was Chevron chief executive John Watson, who described the measures as "anti-competitive" and "discriminatory."
He implored lawmakers: "Don't punish our industry for doing our jobs well."
Executives in turn warned that a higher tax bill would spell fewer jobs, higher consumer prices and reduced competitiveness.
"Raising taxes will lead to less investment, less production and most likely higher cost per gallon and less employment," said James Mulva CEO of ConocoPhillips.
Baucus flatly rejected that argument.
"Given profits of $35 billion in just the first quarter alone, it's hard to find evidence that repealing these subsidies would cut domestic production or cause layoffs," he said.
Obama's Republican foes, wary of being painted as anti-consumer, said Democrats were guilty of political opportunism, and that reforming the tax code would do little to lower gasoline prices.
"Politics is thick in the air today," complained the committee's ranking Republican Orrin Hatch as the hearing opened.
Witnesses at the hearing included John Watson, chairman and chief executive of Chevron Corporation; Marvin Odum, US president of Shell Oil Company; Lamar McKay, chairman and president of BP America; Mulva; and Rex Tillerson, chairman and chief executive of Exxon Mobil Corporation.
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