For congressional watchdogs assigned to keep tabs on the executive branch, an order to look into something at the Justice Department used to ruin their day. When Dick Thornburgh was attorney general, he routinely refused to meet with them at all, and his aides continually challenged their authority to investigate sensitive subjects.
But recently, when three auditors from the General Accounting Office--the congressional agency that monitors the executive branch--trudged over to the Justice Department on such a mission, Acting Atty. Gen. William P. Barr greeted the astonished investigators in shirt sleeves and cordially escorted them to his own conference room.
“It was all symbols and demeanor,” says Lowell Dodge, director of administration of justice issues for the GAO, “but it was a powerful message. Barr’s aides made clear that “he wants to deal differently with the Congress and with the GAO,” Dodge said.
The seeming sea change in attitude toward potential critics reflects the fact that Barr, whose confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee open today, is likely to be a far less confrontational attorney general than Thornburgh, although the nominee may be even more conservative on policy issues.
Some observers said that the youthful Washington insider--he’s 41 years of age--if confirmed as the nation’s top law enforcement official, is likely to make the post less of a partisan spearhead than Thornburgh did. Others said that the fact that Barr’s major sources of support are at the White House--led by President Bush and C. Boyden Gray, counsel to the President--is likely to prevent him from maintaining arms-length objectivity in matters involving the Administration in an election year.
Barr is expected to be confirmed easily, in part, because the Judiciary Committee is trying to recover from the widespread criticism of its handling of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ nomination.
But it also reflects Barr’s blending of conservatism with a self-deprecating approach and a measure of pragmatic flexibility that has won him friends on both sides of the Senate aisle. He showed these qualities first as assistant attorney general in charge of the office of legal counsel, an influential post known as the attorney general’s lawyer, and then as the department’s No. 2 official.
Barr’s government experience before joining the Justice Department at the start of the Bush Administration is less political than Thornburgh’s. He never served as an elected public official. But it is not clear what role--if any--he played in advising Thornburgh on the tone he set as attorney general.