Warren and Harris introduce Senate bill to crack down on price gouging during the coronavirus pandemic

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks during a town hall event at Weeks Middle School on January 19, 2020 in Des Moines, Iowa.

Spencer Platt | Getty Images

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., introduced a bill Friday that would prohibit price gouging during national emergencies, including the Covid-19 pandemic.

Under the Price Gouging Prevention Act, the FTC would be empowered to enforce a ban on excessive price increases of consumer goods during national emergencies. It would have to consider any price increase above 10% to be price gouging during such a declaration. The House bill was crafted based on a similar California law for statewide emergencies.

It would allow states to enforce the ban alongside the FTC but would not prevent states from enacting their own laws around price gouging.

The bill is the Senate companion to a House of Representatives bill introduced last week by Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., alongside Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif.

Warren previously discussed the need for a federal price gouging bill in an op-ed this week in The New York Times. Warren and Harris were also among a group of Democratic senators who asked FTC Chairman Joe Simons “to use the full extent” of the FTC’s powers to prevent price gouging on consumer health products.

E-commerce platforms including AmazoneBay and Walmart have felt pressure to crack down on price gouging from lawmakers and state attorneys general around the country. The companies have struggled to keep up with new posts by third-party sellers making misleading claims about masks and exorbitantly marking up products like hand sanitizer. Amazon, for example, said in early March it had removed 530,000 offers from its marketplace for coronavirus-related price gouging.

The new legislation would shift more pressure to individual sellers, which could prove to be a greater deterrent for potential price-gougers, making it harder for some to slip through the cracks of moderation efforts.

Other lawmakers have also introduced bills to stem price gouging as hospitals are experiencing shortages of personal protective equipment like masks and gloves.

On Wednesday, four high-ranking House Democrats introduced a similar bill. It allows enforcers to consider several price factors to determine whether price gouging occurred, rather than provide a blanket threshold. Four Senate Democrats introduced a bill in late March that would presume price gouging if the increase was more than 20% compared to the pre-crisis cost.

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