Long-awaited checks from the Economic Stimulus Act of 2008 start arriving this week, either zipped electronically into bank accounts or stuffed into mailboxes in crisp, white government envelopes.

Stimulus checks were a great idea in January and February, when Congress and the Bush Administration enacted the bill. On Feb. 13, when the president signed the act, he applauded Congress for its expeditiousness.

At that time, light, sweet crude oil was trading at $91.77/barrel, $31.92 more than the year before. The average per-gallon price of gasoline in Maine was $3.04, and home heating oil was averaging $3.20/gallon statewide.

What a difference just two months has made.

Oil is hovering around $120/barrel, a $53 (or 45 percent) spike over April 2007. A gallon of gasoline averages $3.58, while home heating oil was $3.78 and climbing, when the state released its last pricing survey on March 17.

With these commodity prices soaring, and their related impact on food, the “economic stimulus” landscape has changed dramatically, even though just 10 weeks were needed for the legislation to go from bill to checks.

Measured against traditional congressional speed, this is breakneck. Yet the markets moved even faster during this time, which should re-render assumptions about the potential economic impact of the stimulus checks.

In this uncertain economy, which is barreling toward recession, even the fastest government actions seem tortoise-like. This is unsettling proof that controlling commodity prices – despite politicians’ promises – is beyond them.

They simply cannot act quickly enough.

This is not to malign the stimulus checks arriving this week. They are welcome respites from gloomy outlooks for Maine families, either as spending money for now, seed money for the future, or a windfall to repay debt.

Nothing truly catastrophic should happen from putting a few hundred dollars or more into American pockets. But whether these funds will have the desired effect – economic rejuvenation – is cloudy, given commodity prices.

Resolving the pinpricks that burst the economic bubble – bad mortgages and falling housing prices – are beyond this stimulus package. These checks may slow foreclosures, for example, but cannot reverse the perverse conditions that fuel them. More than anything, the stimulus package is buying time.

So, Congress must now focus upon the next economic policy, with emphasis on cushioning America’s rough economic landing, and forego another attempt to stop the economy from falling.

That is going to mean, most likely, weighing the expansion of unemployment insurance and other social assistance programs. Perhaps most important is finding consensus on government’s role in helping troubled homeowners.

The stimulus checks have bought Congress the time to do this. Now, just like every American, the economic future depends on how they spend it.

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