William Baer, nominated to head the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division, said he would make it a “top priority” to manage a smooth transition following the closure of four regional field offices.
Baer, speaking at a Senate Judiciary Committee nomination hearing, said he would ensure that localized enforcement is not neglected if he is confirmed by the full Senate.
“I appreciate the importance of having a plan in place to ensure effective local and regional enforcement,” Baer said. “The press tends to focus on international and national antitrust issues, but there are serious local and regional problems… A top priority for me, if confirmed by the Senate, is to make sure those plans are in place.”
Last week the four offices — in Atlanta, Cleveland, Dallas and Philadelphia — were notified that their shuttering is imminent, a measure the Justice Department has said will cut costs but not diminish personnel. Senior officers in those field offices has expressed outrage, however, saying their closure will harm localized enforcement as resources are reallocated elsewhere.
Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) has championed the issue for the field division chiefs, sending letters to the Justice Department alerting them of his concern and admonishing any move to pull away from enforcement on smaller scales.
At Thursday’s hearing, Kohl said local price-fixing and bid-rigging issues have the ability to affect consumers most directly.
Baer assured the Wisconsin Democrat that he would rely on his past experience managing office reductions while working at the Federal Trade Commission, which also closed regional offices during his tenure as director of the Bureau of Trade Commission.
“It was my job to make sure we had effective local and regional enforcement and I think we were able to do that,” Baer said.
Baer was joined by his wife, sons and father, who served in World War II, at the hearing Thursday. He told the committee that he was attracted to the position because of his family past in civil service.
“Over the years I have come to appreciate… that removing both governmental and private restraints on free market competition actually pays off and makes a difference in human lives,” he said, adding that the position holds a tremendous amount of responsibility.
Baer also said he would support action by Congress to repeal a controversial 2007 Supreme Court decision in Leegin Creative Leather Products Inc. v. PSKS Inc. That 5-4 ruling, condemned by consumer groups, allowed manufacturers to impose price restraints on retailers, going against nearly a century of legal precedent.
Baer, who was nominated for the position in February, is currently the head of the antitrust practice group at Arnold & Porter LLP. He headed the FTC’s Bureau of Competition from 1995 to 1999, after beginning his career there as a trial attorney in the Bureau of Consumer Protection. Baer is a graduate of Lawrence University and Stanford Law School.