"WOULD IT be possible to bring the guillotines directly to the House floor?" asked Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.) during the emotionally charged House debate on the crime bill Thursday. His sardonic remark, intended to mock his colleagues' fervor for the death penalty, didn't cause a ripple in the face of this tidal wave. Enthusiasm for the electric chair carried the day as a whole series of new crimes was added to the list of those deserving the death penalty. At least one, large-scale drug trafficking, does not involve the killing of another human being.

The House Judiciary Committee's moderate bill was losing ground so fast in the stampede that crime subcommittee chairman Rep. William Hughes (D-N.J.) offered some concessions in order to preempt a much harsher set of amendments offered by Rep. George Gekas (R-Pa.). The Hughes proposal added some new death penalty provisions, made it harder for juries to find mitigating circumstances, lowered the standard for finding aggravating circumstances and removed one level of appellate review in capital cases. Not good enough. His colleagues voted 271 to 159 for the Gekas proposal instead, which, among other things, allows the death penalty when a homicide was not intentional but due to a reckless disregard for human life. The Gekas amendment also repealed a decent provision passed two years ago that requires the appointment of counsel for state death-row prisoners who bring habeas corpus actions in federal court.

Mr. Hughes's comment on this business of piling on the penalties was right on the mark: "It is a sad commentary on our system when {members} walk in the doors, as they did today, and they ask: 'Which {amendment} is tougher.' There were few inquiries on the constitutionality of imposing the death penalty for a crime in which no one was killed. Hardly anyone asked about the fairness of denying lawyers to prisoners whose lives are at stake. Only a third of the House voted against an amendment to short-circuit the habeas corpus provisions in the committee bill.

Only one group escaped the punitive wrath of the lawmakers: domestic manufacturers of assault weapons identical to foreign models like the Uzi or the AK-47, which cannot be imported into this country. The committee bill would have banned domestic manufacture of these guns. The president and the law enforcement community sought and supported such a provision. But in the House, where there had been little talk of constitutional rights to due process, the right to counsel or the protection against cruel and unusual punishment, the all-American right to bear arms was invoked, and the assault-weapon provision was emasculated. So goes the war against crime as conducted in the House of Representatives four weeks before the elections.