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If Congress Reclaims Its War Powers, There Would Be Little Reason to Worry About John Bolton

Many people fear that John Bolton and Donald Trump might start an unnecessary war. But such fears would be unnecessary if Congress were to reclaims it power to initiate war.


John Bolton. Jeff Malet/Newscom.

Commentators as varied as George Will and the New York Times editorial page have expressed great alarm about President Trump's appointment of John Bolton as his new national security adviser. The reasons are understandable: they fear that the almost cartoonishly hawkish Bolton might influence an already bellicose and impulsive Trump into starting an ill-advised war against Iran, North Korea, or elsewhere. While the national security adviser has little formal authority in his own right, he could potentially exercise great influence over a president; especially one who—like Trump—has little knowledge of world affairs, and whose impulses might align with Bolton's.

There would be far less need for such alarm if Congress would act to reassert its control over the power to initiate war. The Founding Fathers gave Congress that authority precisely to preclude a situation where a single person had the power to take the nation into war. Although they could not foresee the exact circumstance of Trump's rise, they did worry about the possibility that the presidency might be held by a man who is impulsive, a dangerous demagogue, or a politician with an interest in starting a war that benefits him politically at the expense of the national interest. For that very reason, they denied the president the power to start a war, and instead gave it to Congress.

As James Madison put it, "[t]he constitution supposes, what the History of all Gove[rmen]ts demonstrates, that the Ex[ecutive] is the branch of power most interested in war, & most prone to it. It has accordingly with studied care, vested the question of war in the Legisl[ature]." Even Alexander Hamilton, the leading advocate of expansive presidential power among the Founders, wrote that only "the Legislature have a right to make war" and that "it is . . . the duty of the Executive to preserve Peace till war is declared."

In recent years, unfortunately, congressional authority in this field has been eroded, including under President Obama, who started two wars without congressional authorization—the 2011 Libya intervention, and the war against ISIS. There are a variety of steps Congress could take to reassert legislative control. I discussed some of them here. Others have been suggested by Yale Law School Professor Bruce Ackerman, one of the few constitutional scholars who has consistently raised this issue under both Obama and Trump and took both to task over it.

If Congress retakes control over the initiation of war, that greatly reduces the potential harm that can be caused by either Bolton or any other presidential adviser. Even if he persuades Trump, the US will not initiate a war unless he also persuades both houses of Congress, which requires a fairly broad political consensus. Bolton could still perhaps exercise harmful influence on policies that fall short of war. But he and Trump would not be able to start a major conflict on their own.

While the combination of Bolton's uber-hawkishness and Trump's impulsive ignorance about the world is particularly problematic, the issue here goes beyond any one president or any one adviser. Trump is far from the first man to arrive in the Oval Office with little or no foreign policy experience and very limited knowledge of international relations. His three immediate predecessors—Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama—all also had little foreign policy background when they were elected. Obama himself has admitted that his intervention in Libya was his "worst mistake," though he still refuses to see how initiating the war without constitutionally required authorization exacerbated the error and made the outcome worse than might otherwise have been the case.

Likewise, Trump may not be the last impulsive demagogue to get in the White House. His exploitation of public ignorance was just an extreme example of a common political strategy. We should not rule out the possibility that others with similar flaws will successfully follow in his footsteps. And even a more conventional politician cannot be safely trusted with the power to initiate war at will.

John Bolton isn't all bad. There is, for example, much to be said for his negative view of the United Nations, and for his longstanding insistence—in sharp contrast with Trump—that the US should take a stronger line against Vladimir Putin. Still, there is good reason to worry about the ways in which his worst instincts might interact with Trump's. That combination would be far less problematic if Congress reasserts its war powers, and makes clear that the Constitution does not give any one person the power to start a war.

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94 responses to “If Congress Reclaims Its War Powers, There Would Be Little Reason to Worry About John Bolton

  1. It would be nice if the Congress strengthened its position here, such as promoted by people like Tim Kaine (whoever that is … feel I should remember), but not only is that realistically not going to happen but in practice the executive will retain a large amount of power.

    There was never a golden age when the executive didn’t, especially when communication limitations etc. (a lot of free rein, e.g., in some out of the way place was practicably the case by necessity) and Congress being out of office, have a lot of discretion. In the 21st Century, they will have much more.

    John Bolton could have a lot of power here, especially if he knew (and a piece in Lawfare, e.g., argues he is skillful in this sense) how to play the game (and Trump) well. Even if Congress put limits in place.

    1. (“Congress being out of office” refers to shorter sessions with the executive the only person around in D.C. to act. In fact, originally, even he wasn’t always around — John Adams, e.g., for large periods of time was away. The most obvious instance here was the beginning of the Civil War.)

      1. And even with the Civil War, President Lincoln was very careful to keep it constitutional and also called Congress into session.

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  2. This is too simplistic.

    Yes, we all know only Congress can declare war.

    However presidents often order Operations Other Than War (OOTW), for example, Reagan’s bombing of Libya in 1986.

    The fear here is Trump will do something (drop bombs, etc) which will quickly escalate and involve Russia, China, Japan, South Korea, and then we’ll all find out if God really exists.

    1. Presidents get away with that only because Congress lets them. You’re missing the point, apedad. Congress needs to stop it for all presidents. They need to take back their authority and stop the gamesmanship that includes euphemisms like “Operations Other Than War”.

      1. I need to have a billion dollars.. Both are equally likely.

      2. “Congress needs to stop it for all presidents.”

        The ONLY think Congress could do that would have any chance of stopping it would be to impeach and remove from office every president that engages in the gamesmanship that includes euphemisms like “Operations Other Than War” until future would be presidents get the message.

        The potential downside is that if the House issues articles of impeachment over an issue like this and the Senate fails to convict, the political fallout could strengthen the executive and further weaken Congress in this space.

    2. Yet I didn’t hear all the fear mongering when Obama was dropping bombs and killing civilians all over the world. Even killing US citizens in other countries.

      1. Surely these are different issues.

        In any event, if you didn’t hear any fear mongering, it might be because you were not tuned into liberal media, which went nuts over Obama’s shaky legal justification for killing American citizens in other countries, etc.

        1. Yeah, they sure gave it to him over Libya.

          1. What Americans citizens did Obama kill in Libya?

  3. Sigh. The sad old trope of “Scary Republicans will start WWIII” is being trotted out yet again.

    But if they do, it won’t be as good as the first two. Everyone knows the third installment of a trilogy is always the weakest.

    1. To be fair, Austin; Trump seems different from other past Republican (and Dem) presidents. Trump supporters see that as a feature; his detractors see that as a bug. But no one is idiotic enough to argue that Trump is not substantially different from his predecessors in the combination of both temperament and governing experience. (Again, people can argue in good faith that his differences are, on balance, a net plus. But ignoring his differences is either dishonest or deluded.)

      1. No, not fair.

        The narrative was Reagan we different (war-mongering Ronnie Ray-gun),

        Bush II was different (needed to have a war to look good to Daddy and make his oil buddies happy. He was was labeled “ChimpyMcBushHitler”)

        Trump’s temperament is almost identical to Teddy Roosevelt, and he certainly has much more governing experience (running multi-billion dollar corporations is certainly a form of governing) than his immediate predecessor (who had none whatsoever)

        1. President Obama was a state senator in Illinois from 1996-2004, and US Senate from 2005-2008. Then he was President of the United States for 8 years. How can you say he had less governing experience?

          1. Much less “none whatsoever”?

            1. You really like sucking black cock.
              Obama was absent in Illinois Senate more than any one in its history.
              Obama was in the U.S. senate for 144 days then ran for president, which used up most of his time.
              Yes, he got 8 years of experience after being elected! You blowhard.

          2. Personally, I consider experience as a state governor far more relevant to presidential candidates than legislative experience at any level. In fact, a term or two as a city mayor would be more relevant than time in the US Senate.

            I will concede however, that it’s not no experience.

          3. His governing experience was primarily not voting on legislation with no responsibility nor accountability for his actions. Same for his other experience as a non-tenured professor and community organizer.

          4. That experience would be of more value if he had:
            One, bothered to show up most of the time
            Two, not voted “present” when he actually DID show up

            1. My recommendation is not to vote for him.

          5. Because serving in the legislature isn’t considered “governing experience.” “Governing experience” is usually synonymous with “executive experience” (actually having to run a major organization) rather than just “experience in government” (holding a public-sector job or office).

        2. No, running corporations, and especially real estate corporations, is not at all like governing. Trump’s corporate deal-making was based on the notion of encountering each victim once, screwing them, then moving on after another target. The victims never got another shot at him.

          In government, most of the folks you screw are independently powerful, meaning they can just hang around, making the best of endless opportunities for pay back. Do you see any sign that Trump has figured that out, even now, with God knows how many of his former targets and associates waiting their turns to chat with Mueller?

          Also, no. Trump’s temperament isn’t at all like Teddy Roosevelt’s. With Roosevelt, where’s the lying, the war on the press, the late-night crazies, the trashy women, the perverse inclination to choose policy for no other reason than he thinks it’s what his opponents will hate most?

          1. I don’t think you know very much about business. In both business and politics, there is a fine judgment to be made about how much to push for immediate advantage at any moment versus the need to preserve relationships (e.g., in Trump’s industry, with lenders, contractors, municipal authorities, unions, brokers, etc.). Trump has been an aggressive businessman, but I don’t think he has been more aggressive in business than FDR or LBJ were in politics.

            Obama was apparently willing to poison his relationship with Republicans from the commencement of his presidency. This severing of relationships meant that his effectiveness was limited for most of his tenure. (Compare Reagan, who had a major legislative success, tax reform, during his second term.)

          2. StephenL: “No, running corporations, and especially real estate corporations, is not at all like governing.”

            Corporations and the military versus the (deep?) state. Harry Truman said it best, when Dwight Eisenhower was coming into the Presidency: “He’ll sit here, and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike?it won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.”

            So I’m still hopeful.

          3. You’re right, he’s more like Clinton, who made a trashy, lying president acceptable in the white house.

        3. Trump’s temperament is almost identical to Teddy Roosevelt,

          That is an aggressively dumb assertion.

          Roosevelt, born with physical problems, volunteered for the Rough Riders. Trump, heir to privilege, confected illusory bone spurs to avoid military service.

          Roosevelt was physically fit, disciplined, and courageous. Trump is flabby, undisciplined, and a self-described coward. Roosevelt declined immediate medical treatment for a gunshot, then carried the bullet within his chest for life. Trump rides in a golf cart (not just when golfing) and gets cranky if he must spend a night away from his favorite pillow.

          Roosevelt was intellectually curious and meticulous, a scholar from a young age. Trump prefers charts to reasoned prose and is vividly reckless and unprepared.

          Roosevelt was a committed, altruistic reformer and public servant. Trump is a swamp-suckling self-promoter.

          Other than that, great comment.

          1. “Roosevelt, born with physical problems, volunteered for the Rough Riders.”

            You mean Wood’s Weary Walkers?

          2. “Roosevelt declined immediate medical treatment for a gunshot, then carried the bullet within his chest for life.”

            A smart move at the time, given the then primitive development of surgery. Getting operated on would have been the gutsy move.

          3. I’m not surprised that RAK would support Teddy Roosevelt, a Progressive tovarisch.

  4. I would have gone with Ramsey.

    1. Dog gone . . . Ramsay is no longer available.

  5. Presidents starting military action without Congressional approval, and especially without Congress declaring war, goes back to the beginning. What else would you call the quasi-war with France in 1798 or thereabouts?

    1. I think Congress authorized the seizure of French ships. So they quasi-declared a quasi war.

      1. Here we go:

        “…Congress commissioned 1,000 privateers to defend against French hostilities, and established the United States Navy on April 30, 1798. By May, the sloop Ganges was guarding the coast between Long Island and Chesapeake and was joined the next month by the Constellation and the United States. On July 7, 17(9)8, Congress rescinded all treaties with France. The same day, the USS Delaware captured the French privateer La Croyable off the shores of New Jersey. Two days later, Congress authorized American warships to attack French vessels.”

        1. It may have also been done in relation to Article 1, Section 8: “10: To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offences against the Law of Nations”.

      2. But they no more declared war than they did with the Tonkin Gulf resolution.

        If the quasi war was legal because Congress funded it and authorized some sort of action, so was every other kinetic action Congress funded.

        1. I wouldn’t suggest it was a good idea – and maybe there was some constitutional problem.

          But at least with the quasi war, the Constitution empowers Congress to grant letters of marque and reprisal and make rules concerning captures on land and water – this is listed after the war power.

          It seems to be a bad precedent about Congressional abdication, and since this was the same Congress that passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, we can question whether they were scrupulously adhering to the Constitution in a time of crisis.

  6. And if Congress became fiscally responsible and began paying down the national debt, there would be little reason to worry about that issue, either.

    So long as we’re fantasizing.

    1. If Congress actually appropriated, rather than rolling over these gawdawful CRs that would possibly enable them to defund things.

      But they don’t really want to defund things, or even risk looking like they failed to defund things.

  7. Anyway, if the Pres is ignoring Congress’ constitutional prerogatives on war, what can Congress do?

    Pass a statute which the Pres will ignore just like he ignores the Constitution?

    Make vain threats of impeaching the Pres – aka “stabbing our troops in the back in the middle of a war”?

    Cut off funds for the war – aka “stabbing our troops in the back in the middle of a war”?

    Of the various remedies, impeachment seems the only one that would work and that is simply a “scare-crow” (as I think Jefferson called it in a different context).

    Buckle up, it should be a fun ride.

    1. I think impeachment is essentially off the table, since no one in the middle or left wants to see a President Pence. (Or, to be more accurate, if Dems take the House in November, I think impeachment is very *likely* as long as the House knows that the Senate will not convict/remove Trump, for the above reason. The prospect of a Prez Pence is the best insurance Trump could possibly have, which is just more evidence that selecting VP Pence was the best decision Candidate Trump made, for a wide variety of [unfortunate!!!] reasons.)

      1. Well, santamonica, I’ve tried that argument out myself, just to see how it feels. And it felt pretty comfy. But after thinking it over, I just can’t take it seriously?at least in the sense of recommending it. I think serious people who don’t like existential risk shouldn’t allow Trump one more minute in the White House than they have to. But for all I know, you could be right about how the politics would work.

        1. Existential risk… Silly hyperbole.

  8. Why is this even about Trump, given how many Presidents have started wars on their own say-so in the last half century?

    1. He’s in power now. So, it’s about Trump.

      But, the overall principle goes beyond him. Sure.

      1. Joe: “He’s in power now. So, it’s about Trump.”

        And there is the question of unstable Trump and the nukes.

        If he wanted to send in troops into Pyongyang, it would take weeks to arrange, long enough for Congress to get off it’s bum. But if he woke up one morning and decided that instead of a tweet-storm a couple of missiles aimed at North Korea would be a good thing, it could be done in hours.

        I can imagine it taking a coup to stop him. Which does not comfort me.

        1. You realize there is absolutely no basis for all this banging on Trump, right? It is not based on anything he has done. In that regard he has been more restrained that Obama or Bush. It is all based on the stuff he says (and often walks back).

        2. A Twitter Nuke?

      2. Joe_JP: “He’s in power now. So, it’s about Trump.”

        And then there is the issue of President Trump and the nukes.

        If he decided to send troops into Pyongyang, it would take weeks to arrange, maybe long enough for Congress to give it a thought or two.

        But if he awoke one morning and decided a couple of missiles aimed at North Korea were a better start to the day than a tweet-storm, it could be done in hours.

        I can imagine it taking a coup to stop him. Which does not comfort me very much.

        1. And if a former President needed a distraction, he might bomb a pharmaceutical plant in the third world, too. My point is simply that this problem is much, much larger than a particular President. Trump isn’t even, to date, anything like the worst offender.

          1. Your point seems to be to change the subject from your guy.

            It’s perfectly logical to address the present, whatever it might be.

            And, the discussion didn’t even simply do that. It did speak in more general terms.

  9. “If Congress Reclaims its War Powers, there Would be Little Reason to Worry about John Bolton”

    If pigs could fly, my bacon could self-deliver.

      1. Yep, with enough thrust and computer controlled flight surfaces even a brick can fly. For proof look at the F35.

        My bad, poor example, so far all the F35s seem to crash.

        1. Getting a brick to fly is not difficult. All you need is a big enough sling shot.

          Getting it to make a safe controlled landing at the end of the flight, that’s the difficult part.

          If the F35 couldn’t fly, it couldn’t crash either. 🙂

  10. Congress likes not having the responsibility.

    Its not just war making. Look at tariffs, there is arguably a veto proof majority in both houses to stop the recent Trump tariffs but they won’t even vote on it.

  11. So lots of people are (correctly) saying this is tilting at windmills.

    The problem is about the incentives. Congress doesn’t see any upside in taking responsibility for anything they can avoid, as Bob notes.

    How do you change that incentive?

    1. Popular discontent over the years led to some limits in part because of the incentive of elections.

      Some responsibility also might in various cases give congressional actors a degree of power and prestige that some might be encouraged to use. A few might be influenced by ideological sentiments. This has been shown to have certain value over the years, limited as it might be.

      1. It didn’t used to be like this either. Church Commission, WPR, that World War I commission…

        So are we just witnessing the latest in a slow one-way ratchet towards executive power?

        1. Congressional approval was 84% in 2002. The pendulum will swing back.

          1. But the time constant could be very long and we may not have reached the bottom.

            Regardless of the 2018 mid-terms, 2019 is likely to be worse. Just read WaPo comments to see the level of unmitigated vitriol on all sides.

          2. On September 10th, 2001, Congressional approval was 42%, down from the a high the previous year in the mid 50%s.
            By late 2002, it was back below 50%, and continued to drop as time passed.

            If another 9/11 occurs, we might have another pendulum swing… for less than a year… but I wouldn’t count on that.

          3. Beyond the 9-11 issue, I don’t know that Congressional popularity will make them change their plan of never taking responsibility.

        2. Perhaps. I was considering this last week after Trump’s line-item veto comment. Some were speculating that Congress wouldn’t grant the president a line-item veto to maintain budget control, others said it could create a politically favorable environment. “Oh look, constituents, I tried to pass this spending measure, but the president vetoed it.” Clinton was granted one in 1998? that was quickly ruled unconstitutional, but we were more budget-conscious through his presidency.

          What is the WPR?

          1. War Powers Resolution.

            I don’t know that the line item veto changed much in and of itself. Regardless, we can’t go through that door again without a lot more effort, precedents being what they are.

            1. I think you’re right about the line-item veto likely not making much of a difference. My recollection was that the line item veto was passed in 1996. Before that we had a government shutdown in 1995 which lead to an initial deal between the White House and Congress and spending. There was a longer-term deal on Medicaid/Medicare reimbursements that came after that but I don’t believe it was a product of the line item veto.

              Regardless though, the line item veto was struck down by SCOTUS as unconstitutional which I think was the correct ruling. Even though I favor giving the President a line item veto like many governors have, I think it requires a constitutional amendment to do that.

    2. How do you change that incentive?

      You wait, for just a few more years. The next new thing in American politics will come from millennials, pretty soon. And when it happens, everyone, including millennials, will be surprised by who it came from, and what they turn up with.

      1. The millennials are going to turn up with the Spanish Inquisition?

        1. Nope, the millennials are going for full on Socialism. Feel the Bern baby.

          Pardon me while I wash my mouth out. It is true, but still.

          1. Clearly you are not a Monty Python fan.

            No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!.

  12. Either way, it would appear that in the grand scheme of things Trump’s election means the “end for the neoliberal world order” as stated by this compelling but unsettling essay:

    Is this the end for the neoliberal world order?

    That might sound appealing for many reasons, but unfortunately the outlook is very bad.

    “To save themselves, neoliberals increasingly embrace ever more illiberal ideas. China’s progressively authoritarian dictatorship has completely undermined the neoliberal assumption that economic growth would eventually promote the rule of law and democracy. Now China’s approach elicits hosannas from new wave authoritarians, such as Jerry Brown . .

    Despite initial economic success, President Trump is unlikely to succeed, as much a reflection of his unappealing personality and ideological incoherence than policy failures. Over time, opposing forces like the media, much of Wall Street, the tech oligarchy and academia will likely turn back right-wing nationalism. But neoliberalism as we have known it seems largely finished.

    So what will replace neoliberalism? Most likely the next iteration will be an increasingly autocratic one, reflecting the increasingly concentrated nature of the world economy, and facilitated by the growing control over information by a handful of tech oligarchs.”

    1. Can’t click on the link from here, but from your excerpt it sounds like a lot of ipse dixit speculation to me.

      And “new wave authoritarians, such as Jerry Brown” gives the game away about the article’s…agenda I guess you’d call it.
      IIRC, Brown was praising China’s efforts about global warming, not it’s authoritarianism.

      1. “new wave authoritarians, such as Jerry Brown, who see China, easily the world’s greatest greenhouse gas emitter, as a role model for its ability to impose harsh regulatory policies.”

        It’s from the O.C. Register on March 24. Speculation yes, but highly informed and well reasoned speculation, not ipse dixit.

      2. “IIRC, Brown was praising China’s efforts about global warming, not it’s authoritarianism.” Because global warming efforts can’t be authoritarian, right? Because it’s ‘the right thing’.

    2. What’s the difference between Neoliberalism and Liberalism Classic?

      1. Oldo-liberalism?

        Retro liberalism?

        Your Dad’s liberalism?

      2. As far as I can tell, Neolliberalism is very much like Neoconservatism, but with a little bit less war and a lot more open borders and identity politics.

        Neither has anything to do with classical liberalism.

        1. I’ve lost touch. 9/10 -isms I see now are unfamiliar.

  13. What is known here as the French and Indian war was “declared” in 1756 by England . . . after several battles over a period of at least two years. This historical background was recent when the word “declare” was written into the Constitution. It would not seem that the framers understood the word “declare” to be synonymous with “start.”

    The definition appears to have remained the same.

    Cambridge English Dictionary: “to announce something clearly, firmly, publicly, or officially”

  14. Stop using the word, “problematic.”

    It is the language of the Neo-Marxist, “progressive” left, and has been re-purposed to their ends.

    1. Can you provide a list of words not to use?


      1. Here is one – Bourgeois – French for middle class.

        1. In the 1960s I thought lefties who overused “bourgeois” were poseurs.

  15. Congress doesn’t want responsibility for war powers. Members occasionally – depending on party – complain after the fact, but if I remember correctly, a tiny minority have ever come out in favor of taking back the powers that they surely possess. What members of Congress want is to get re-elected. And it is always safer to not act and not get blamed than to act and take the heat.

    I’m less concerned about the War Powers Act than I am about a myriad of Congressional powers it has turned over to the Executive branch, allowing presidents to make laws as they please.

  16. Yep. Been saying for years. Congress has allowed our presidents to run amok with no control since Bush Jr. Now we have troops in countries our Congress isn’t even aware of (as we found out in Trump’s first failed mission to Yemen, and the death of several GIs in a secret mission in Mali.) The issue was brilliantly explained in Daybreak : Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union” by David Swanson. Congress’ lack of performance is in direct contradiction to our own Constitution, which designates Congress as the branch of government that declares war, and the 1973 War Powers Act, which stipulates that the president cannot attack without Congressional approval unless we are attacked first or our peoples or forces are under immediate and direct threat. Trump ignored all of that, and his generals obeyed his commands to attack a Syrian/Russian airbase with 60+ missiles, when we were not threatened. Shameful!

    1. Congress has allowed our presidents to run amok with no control since Bush Jr

      WTF are ten years old?

  17. What astounds me is that it’s taken until now for anyone but me to suggest that the 2001 AUMF is unconstitutional — because the bill, on its face, has Congress delegating to the President its authority to declare war. I don’t think it is validly possible for Congress ever to delegate that power.

  18. Congress should exercise its Constitutional war powers.

    But practically, the Congress we have had over the past few decades has demonstrated it won’t act in a timely manner. And we are faced with enemies that act with little hesitation or rumination.

    If we had the Congress of recent history in control in 1941, there would still be partisan debates over what to do over the Raid on Pearl Harbor.

    (Aside. Query: POTUS and SCOTUS are recognized acronyms, but not COTUS? Hunh?)

  19. And if the House of Representatives reclaims its taxation powers, there would be little reason to worry about Peter Navarro. Unfortunately, there’s very little chance of either happening. In the first place, the last thing members of Congress want is responsibility to complicate their exercise of sheer power. In the second place, both Democrats and Republicans raise a lot of money through the recriminations between the party the President belongs to and the other, and the financial well-being of the party system has become the basic purpose of American government.

    Factiones delendae sunt.

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