The many metaphors used to describe the government's failure

Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) (C) walks through Statuary Hall on his way to the floor of the House of Representatives during the 11th day of the federal government partial shutdown at the U.S. Capitol October 11, 2013 in Washington, D.C.

This is the eleventh day of the partial government shutdown. According to the Treasury Department, there are six days until the U.S. can’t pay its bills. 

And while hope about a solution has waxed and waned, folks in Washington have been growing ever more adept at spinning mind-bending metaphors to explain just what the heck is going. 

Right now, the government is shut down because Congress hasn’t passed a bill to fund the government. Or, to hear Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) explain it:

“Suppose that you went to the grocery store,” he suggested in a recent speech before making an extended comparison.

If shopping is not your thing, how about this nature simile, courtesy of Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a Texas Democrat?

“Like those periodic cicadas that trouble different parts of the country, an irresponsible segment of the Republican House caucus has reverted to the old GOP shenanigan of a government shutdown that they’d left in some burrow for the last 17 years,” Doggett said recently.

Two-time U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, a professor at Boston University, said he doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

“The attempt to clarify becomes like a poem by an avant-garde surrealist poet,” Pinsky said.

Metaphors can complicate things, and that certainly has happened with the debt limit. In simple terms, Congress sets a limit on how much money the executive branch can borrow to pay the bills. Here, the analogies have been more bellicose. There has been talk of a ticking time bomb and a nuclear weapon. Or of ransom.

“They don’t get to hold the entire economy hostage over ideological demands,” President Obama said, of some House Republicans. The president also compared the situation to a family’s budget, and he’s not the only politician to use that imperfect analogy.

“We have in my household budget some bills that have to be paid and some bills that we can defer or only pay partially,” Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.) said in a television interview.

And so many metaphors lead to mixed metaphors.

“Somewhere in the middle of this long tunnel, as we head to the goal posts, there’s a cliff,” Jeff Shesol, a speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, said jokingly. “It’s hard to imagine what that actually looks like physically.”

Pinsky has a secret ambition, he confides: to be a speech writer.

“What I would love to do is try to see how plain I can make some of these points,” he said, “the difference between a default and a sequester and a debt ceiling.”

Pinsky said politicians would have a lot more success if they could explain these things in plain English.

About the author

David Gura is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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