In a last-gasp vote just before adjourning, the House last night passed a bill to prevent big oil company mergers for six months. The bill was aimed at Mobil Oil Corp.'s projected takeover of the Marathon Oil Co.
The legislation provoked a brief but bitter debate, but it was all academic, because the Senate adjourned before the House acted, and the bill could not become law. The vote was 223 to 107.
The bill was called up unexpectedly around 10:15 p.m. by members of Congress strongly oppposed to the Mobil plan to acquire the Ohio-based company. Representatives from oil-producing states opposed it and tried to invoke House rules to keep it from being acted on.
The bill would have placed a six-month moratorium on oil-industry mergers, preventing any of the top nine oil-producing companies from acquiring more than 5 percent of the stock of any of the top 40 oil-producing companies. Mobil ranks ninth. Marathon is 14th.
Those provisions could have been suspended by either the attorney general or the chairman of the Federal Trade Commission.
The bill was brought to the floor by Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), and was strongly supported by Rep. Clarence J. Brown, a Republican from Marathon's home state.
As consideration began, an angry opponent, Rep. Robert L. Livingston (R-La.) moved for adjournment. That was defeated on a roll-call vote. Livingston said it was "outrageous" for the leadership of both parties to permit consideration of such a far-reaching bill at the "last hour."
At one point, when Brown offered to yield speaking time, one congressman yelled, "Take your time and shove it."
The issue was moot, however, because the Senate never would have acted. Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) was prepared to bring the bill up in that chamber, but would have needed unanimous consent. Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) later said there would have been objections from both sides.
The proposal would not have prevented acquisition of Marathon by U.S. Steel. A takeover by the steel giant also has been proposed.
Brown later told reporters that the bill should "have a dampening effect" on prospective oil-company mergers.
Critics have complained for years about takeovers by the big oil companies, saying that the energy firms should take advantage of their high prices and profits to explore for more oil, not gobble up other firms. Several bills limiting such takeovers have been proposed in Congress before. Never before has either chamber passed one.