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Stay focused on stimulus Meet Obama's demand for quick action, but make sure measures are on target

As President Obama deals with Republican objections to spending proposals and feuds with members of his own party about tax cuts, every idea being considered for the massive stimulus package now working its way through Washington should be judged not just on whether it would be money well spent, but on whether it also would be money spent quickly.

That's the purpose of this stimulus: to stimulate, quickly enough to make a difference. Much of the nearly $1 trillion stimulus package now shaping up does just that. Parts of it don't. The pieces that merely advance pet partisan programs should be cut out and debated separately as House and Senate versions are reconciled, not just swept through with an economic package. The pieces that just smell of pork should just be cut out.

The health of the nation and of millions of families are far more important than lading this bill with extraneous spending. If ever there was a bill that should be free of earmarks, this is it.

But this all has to be done quickly, to have any chance of slowing or stopping an economic slide that's gaining momentum. Before details of the prolonged and expensive post-operative rehabilitation are worked out, the doctor has to stop the patient from bleeding to death.

To be sure, there are elements of this package that are both good policy and needed economic help. One example of proper tourniquet spending is the estimated $2.43 billion in new operating aid that New York school districts would receive from the House-passed stimulus bill. Because it is the kind of allotment that would be put to immediate use -- and could forestall teacher layoffs or school tax increases that would take spending money out of taxpayers' pockets -- it fits the bill exactly.

Other elements don't. How many new economy-stimulating jobs will be created immediately, if at all, by the tacked-on $650 million for new digital TV conversion coupons? Or the $1 billion to get ready for the 2010 Census, which would have to be done anyway? Or the $726 million for after-school snack programs, the $1 billion or so for climate research, $20 million to remove fish barriers at dams or $20 million to rehabilitate off-road ATV trails?

The president and other supporters of this package are right in pointing out that such program funding is a relatively small fraction of the total and should not derail the critically important swift passage of the measure.

But that doesn't lift the burden of trying to eliminate excess now, or the duty to watch carefully as this spending bonanza wends its way through statehouses and the halls of local government. The test must be the same: Fast, but well-targeted and effective spending. The overriding principle must be the health of the nation, not of narrow interests.

Obama economic guru Lawrence Summers is among those promoting massive spending on infrastructure projects such as rails, highways, bridges, sewers, etc., as the best way for government to get money into circulation. That's true, but only to the degree that the money goes for projects that are truly ready for groundbreaking, and not to far-away dreams that won't be through environmental review, much less ready for a shovel, for months or years.

Tax cuts should be measured in a similar way. Good ones are those that stimulate spending, whether as rebates to working families who will immediately spend the money on delayed needs, incentives for house buyers who can restart the housing market or investment tax credits that can be claimed only by businesses that are investing, now, in new plants and equipment. Bad ones are those that will be socked away, or sent to overseas investments, by more affluent people who need no help with day-to-day living.

Longer-term projects, particularly expanded transportation, Internet and power infrastructure needs that have gone begging for decades, can be the long-term rehab that the economy also needs. Later.

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