The NY Times has a story today headlined "Big Rise in Profit Puts Oil Giants on Defensive," which shows how hard times at the gas pump for ordinary folks means good times for oil execs:

Exxon Mobil, the world's largest oil company, said yesterday that its third-quarter net income jumped 75 percent, to $9.92 billion. Its profit in the first nine months of this year - $25.42 billion - already equals its full-year earnings for 2004. This year's sales, which topped $100 billion in the last quarter, are expected to exceed those of Wal-Mart.

Another oil giant, Royal Dutch Shell, reported a 68 percent jump in profits yesterday, to $9.03 billion. Chevron is expected to post a profit of more than $4 billion today ... BP reported that its third-quarter profit rose 34 percent, to $6.46 billion.

But for Big Oil to be on the defensive, there has to be an offense. Who's on the attack? On the GOP side of the aisle, David Sirota noted earlier this week that tough-talking Republicans get weak in the knees when faced with the idea of challenging energy interests:

The Financial Times reports that House Republicans are now publicly asking the oil industry to use its massive excess profits to increase refining capacity. The move highlights the unwillingness of the GOP to support a windfall profits tax on their oil industry donors -- a levy the public overwhelmingly supports. Instead, the GOP's public policy prescription amounts to them saying "please Mr. Oil Company Executive, be nicer." This from the party that is supposed to pride itself on being "tough" and "strong."

Not many Democrats are taking the lead either on this pocket-book issue of concern to working families and middle-class America, with notable exceptions:

Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, yesterday called on eight of the largest American energy concerns, including Citgo Petroleum, which is controlled by the government of Venezuela, to contribute 10 percent of their profits to heating-aid programs this winter.

It's interesting that Reed singled out Citgo, since Venezuela President Hugo Chavez has already promised that the company -- unlike other oil conglomerates -- will provide discounted heating oil to poor U.S. households this winter.

The reality is that a windfall tax on excess profits -- as used against war profiteers during World War II and gouging oil companies in the 1970s -- is the only way to recapture the ill-gotten wealth corporations have gained off the backs of everyday consumers.

GOP plans to press companies to invest in more refinery capacity is an ineffecient, indirect approach that could take months to see results. It doesn't address Big Oil's gouging and profiteering. And it also commits our country to expanded oil use when our energy system should be going in the opposite direction (indeed, as Jerome a Paris shows over at DKos, the companies making huge profits are seeing long-term declines in oil production -- all the more reason to boost conservation and renewables, not refineries).

There seems to be a constituency for reining in Big Oil -- will leaders in Washington act on it?