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Billion here, billion there: We need Dirksen’s wisdom

Runaway government spending sometimes brings to mind the sagacious Everett McKinley Dirksen, who served in Congress from Illinois from 1933 to 1969 and was minority leader of the Senate for the last 10 of those years.

That was when "minority" meant "Republican." Mr. Dirksen, like many Republicans of his day, regularly decried deficit spending by a government that was largely controlled by Democrats.

Perhaps the most famous comment attributed to Mr. Dirksen is "A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking real money."

Problem is, he may not have said that.

The Dirksen Congressional Center, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization in Pekin, Ill., that seeks to get more people involved in civic affairs and help them understand Congress, tried to authenticate the quote.

On its Web site, www.dirksen, the center reports that archivists examined audiotapes, speech notes, newspaper clippings, transcripts and the Congressional Record.

They failed to find the famous comment, although Mr. Dirksen told some colorful illustrative stories when decrying, for example, a 1965 federal debt ceiling of $328 billion (the debt is now close to $8 trillion).

Mr. Dirksen often spoke off the cuff with minimal notes, so it's possible he said it. But a caller to the center in 2004 claimed that he sat by Mr. Dirksen on a flight and asked about it. The reply: "Oh, I never said that. A newspaper fella misquoted me once, and I thought it sounded so good that I never bothered to deny it."

Whether he said it or not, Mr. Dirksen disdained letting federal spending pile up with little or no thought of restraining it or finding corresponding revenue. We wonder what he would think of the comment of his fellow Republican, President Bush, about spending for Hurricane Katrina recovery: "It's going to cost what it's going to cost."

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