Congress Gets a Guillotine

A French Revolution metaphor has swiftly cut through this week's opinion pages

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The cliché:

"Above all, one hideous figure grew as familiar as if it had been before the general gaze from the foundations of the world -- a figure of the sharp female called 'La Guillotine.'" - A Tale of Two Cities

Charles Dickens wrote the words in 1859, but apparently, he would have fit in just as well on this week's opinion pages, where another guillotine is presenting herself. The New York Times editors first pointed to it in an editorial explaining the debt ceiling agreement: "If the committee is deadlocked, or its recommendations are rejected by either house of Congress, then a dreaded guillotine of cuts would come down: $1.2 trillion in across-the-board spending reductions that would begin to go into effect by early 2013." In The Washington Post today, Fareed Zakaria followed suit. "If the congressional 'super-committee' cannot agree on cutbacks of $1.5 trillion, the guillotine will fall and half of those cuts will have to come from expenditures on national security.... Let the guillotine fall." Across the ocean, The Irish Times says, "The only thing that is supposed to preclude the same fate for this super committee is a guillotine that will make automatic swingeing cuts in domestic spending if they fail." Indeed "La Guillotine" seems to be everybody's favorite metaphor for what pessimists say is the inevitable: automatic cuts that accompany a deadlock among the Congressional committee.

Where it's from: We are, of course, referring to the bladed contraption invented by Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin and made famous from overuse during the French Revolution. The guillotine's blade which drops from a high wooden frame, is intended to decapitate its victim as painlessly as possible.

Why it's catching on: The across-the-board cuts designed by Congress will happen swiftly and evenly. They are also meant to be a threat, an impetus to force Congressmen into compromising. So a guillotine, being swift, even, and threatening, makes sense as a metaphor, especially given its typical use in budget cutting context.

Why else? The New York Times used the metaphor of a guillotine as a means of depicting the compromise reached by Congress as ruthless. Dickens, and others, pointed to the literal guillotine as way to describe the insatiable, blind, and destructive appetite of the French revolutionaries -- the mob. Perhaps The Times editors, too, mean to implicate the people. In this case, it isn't the French people, but the Tea Party, another populist movement that has risen up to demand unprecedented cuts to government budgets, slicing federal entitlement programs with the swiftness of a blade.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.