Talk in Washington is turning toward crafting a second effort to stimulate the nation's weakened economy, and while the idea is worth considering, both Congress and the administration need to approach it methodically.
First they need to ensure that any new package is necessary, given the inflationary impact it will have on the nation's towering budget deficit. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke is pushing for one, warning that it may be necessary to shorten the national economic slump.
But neither Congress nor the president can give this question fair consideration under the pressure of a looming election. Politics, rather than economics, would inevitably control the debate. They should wait until after Nov. 4.
Second, if there is to be a stimulus, it needs to be crafted in a way that, once approved, puts money into the economy as quickly as possible. The spring stimulus program that put hundreds of dollars into the pockets of individual taxpayers accomplished that goal about as well as can be expected.
Third, the package needs to be clean. A stimulus package is, on its own, a kind of pork spending. Congress does not need to add pig to the pork. A fair package that aims to put spending money in the hands of consumers will do most of the job.
Of course, a stimulus is not all that is needed. The credit markets remain calcified and no stimulus package will offer significant help if they remain nonworking. If, through the mechanism of the recently approved bailout package, Washington can free up responsible lending markets, a stimulus could either bridge the period in between now and then or even act as a down payment on a larger, financed purchase.
But talk today of anything as significant as a stimulus package cannot help but be overwhelmed by political static. In Congress and by the presidential candidates, the discussion would be corrupted by the presumption that it was more about gaining election advantage -- not that Washington would ever stoop to buying votes -- than producing the best possible package.
It would also be worth a more searching debate than occurred last spring, when a package was approved with no discussion of the kind of economic calamity that the subprime mortgage mess was threatening to unleash -- and ultimately did. Let's do this one with our eyes open. Next month.