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Checks and Balances

Typically, Americans think of governmental checks and balances as the interplay among the executive, legislative and judicial branches. But when all three branches lean toward the same political party and have the ideological cohesion to override minority views (as has been the case for the last six years), another check is needed. One has recently come to the rescuestate and local government initiatives.

Ten state attorneys general and the Natural Resources Defense Council, for example, sued the U.S. Department of Energy to stop it from allowing today’s high efficiency standards for central air conditioners to expire. If they had not acted, the agency whose duty it is to monitor and improve our nation’s energy policy would have reduced national standards to pre-Clinton era levels.

Or consider Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s decision to sign the Democrat-sponsored bill to cap California’s carbon dioxide emissions. California will now comply in stages with the 10 percent reduction goals set by the international Kyoto Protocol. The state acted after the United States refused to sign on. Given California’s size, population, energy consumption and fuel emissions, the cleaner air will have real impact.

Whole regions are working in concert. Last year nine states (New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Maine) agreed to freeze power plant emission levels, and more than 170 mayors signed a climate protection agreement, doing locally what the federal government refused to do. Such initiatives test policies, build momentum and garner public support. While they cannot make up for our national failures, they demonstrate that good leadership can make progress.

Little Rock Wins Some

In September 1957, a Jewish woman living in Little Rock, Ark., said the atmosphere in the city that month reminded her of the Nazi Germany she had fled years before. Little Rock had become an ideological battlefield in a conflict between federal and state governments. The city’s school board proposed to begin a gradual desegregation program after the U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling in 1954 that segregated public school systems were unconstitutional. Nine African-American teenagers were to enroll with 1,900 white students in the city’s Central High School, but Arkansas’s Governor Orval E. Faubus ordered the state militia to block this attempt at integration. President Dwight D. Eisenhower trumped the governor by sending in 1,000 federal troops to escort the black students through a jeering crowd into the school. Ten years later, however, all of Little Rock’s public schools were integrated and Governor Faubus was on friendly terms with the local N.A.A.C.P. leadership. After a runoff election last month, Little Rock’s school board now has a black majorityfour of seven members. Skip Rutherford, a former board president who is white, noted that board members today tend to view issues not by color but by what is best for the students.

Peace in Northern Ireland?

An unusual, and encouraging, meeting between Roman Catholic Archbishop Sean Brady and Ian Paisley, the founder and leader of the Free Presbyterian Church and the Democratic Unionist Party, revived hopes that the peace process in Northern Ireland can move forward and restore local government in that embattled country.

The meeting, held on Oct. 9, was hailed by both sides as helpful and constructive and was intended to facilitate discussions on power-sharing in a meeting sponsored by both London and Dublin to be held later in the month in Scotland. Political agreement on power-sharing between Unionists and the Catholic parties, Sinn Fein and the Social Democrat Labor Party, in a new local government for Northern Ireland had remained elusive, even though three decades of violence effectively ended with the Good Friday agreement of 1998.

Mr. Paisley had refused to meet with representatives of Sinn Fein until he was persuaded that Sinn Fein leaders had not only renounced the use of violence but had destroyed caches of weapons hidden by the Irish Republican Army in different parts of Northern Ireland.

While international monitors have certified the actual disarmament of the I.R.A., Mr. Paisley imposed a new condition on Sinn Fein before he would agree to meet with Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein leader, in talks leading up to the meetings in Scotland. The Unionist leader insisted that Sinn Fein agree to support the courts and the police in any new government before the meetings in Scotland that would determine the conditions of the new government. The British secretary for Northern Ireland, Peter Hain, called the new condition imposed by Mr. Paisley no more than a glitch, which would not derail the process now underway.

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