President George W. Bush has always had an imperial vision of the US presidency. Losing control of Congress has, if anything, made him more determined to wield the weapon of unfettered executive power whenever he can get away with it.

The past few weeks have been one long power play by Mr Bush: on everything from the Iraq war to the firing of federal prosecutors and the wiretapping of American telephones, the White House has been both aggressive and defiant. Last week, the combative president even tried to launch a stealth takeover of the US regulatory system, putting a White House commissar into regulatory bodies such as the Environmental Protection Agency – and increasing the risk that such expert agencies will set policy by the dictates of politics rather than science.

The president’s expansive notion of power has provoked increasing friction with the other two branches of America’s deliberately divided government. On Iraq, for the first time, Congress is really fighting back: perhaps as early as today, the Senate will pass a resolution condemning Mr Bush’s troop “surge” plan.

In spite of what will amount to a vote of no-confidence, Mr Bush thinks he has the power – and crucially, the cons­titutional authority – to wage war alone. He regularly insists that, when it comes to the war on terror, he is “the decider”. Some Democrats fear this vision of executive fiat might not end – even at the borders of Iran.

But Mr Bush’s habit of arrogating ever more power to the executive holds risks at home as well as abroad. Tomorrow the powerful Senate judiciary committee will investigate recent hirings and firings of top federal prosecutors – including one who was central to an inquiry into Congressional corruption. The administration has filled the vacancies largely with political cronies – without bothering to seek the confirmation of the Senate.

Now that Congress is fighting back, the administration has backed down and said it will submit nominees for a Senate vote. The lesson of the episode is clear: Mr Bush is expert at playing the American system of separation of powers. Unless Congress is vigilant and forceful, the imperial executive will govern unrestrained.

It is scarcely surprising that, having lost control of Congress, Mr Bush should seek to leave his conservative mark on America by strengthening his power over the executive: the department of justice, with its powerful US attorneys; and the EPA, with its critical role on issues such as climate change.

He has every right to do so – but Congress also has every right to check and balance him at every turn. The founding fathers knew the dangers of an imperial presidency, so they gave Congress the job of reining him in. Now is the time for the legislators to start doing that job in earnest.

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