Memorial fly past

Washingtonians watched a remarkable sight on Tuesday. The Space Shuttle Discovery made three passes over the National Mall on the back of a Boeing 747 before turning toward Dulles airport and retirement.

 This was not the retirement merely of one shuttle, nor even the retirement of a particular program. It was, for now at least, the end of the great epoch of America’s manned space exploration. So the sight of that spacecraft lumbering to its final rest was an especially elegiac one. Even its design, with 1960s and ’70s styling and tiling, spoke of a long-gone era.

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 Standing watching this sad, impressive sight were not just thousands of citizens and tourists on the Mall and thousands of office workers crowded onto upper-floor balconies across downtown. There were also staff and lawmakers looking from the Capitol along the Mall’s two green miles and seeing the emblem of American adventure approach, then turn and disappear over the western horizon.

 Afterward, they too turned — turned inward from watching to get back to work. That was an apt metaphor for what has happened to the United States. Those lawmakers were not racing to their desks with urgent energy to plan and finance a free people’s next great push across a new frontier. 

Instead, they are doing or failing to do the work of a debt-strapped nation  — struggling to cope with dwindling credit, narrowed ambitions and the looming possibility of eventual insolvency. 

 These are days not of adventure and exploration but of limits and retrenchment. The House passed a budget containing deeper cuts than were agreed to in last year’s crisis-motivated debt-ceiling deal. But that budget is going nowhere. The Senate will ignore it and decline to pass a budget of its own. 

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) is moving forward with a markup, but for the third year in a row, the upper chamber will let that blueprint gather dust and curl up at the edges. What’s the point of being decisive when there’s an election coming?

 Nowadays, when the denizens of Congress look for vistas beyond the marble walls of their workplace — except when presented with the sort of nostalgic sight available to them yesterday — all they see is debt stretching away over the horizon. 

 Some of them, indeed more of them than ever, take this seriously, but the two parties cannot agree on how to fix the dire problem. Instead they defer and delay. They kick their tin can down the road, while retiring that other tin can to the National Air and Space Museum.