Government budgets and government programs tend to grow. Small projects or programs get approved and then vastly increase in size. “An elephant is a mouse built to government specifications” is a joke that’s been cited in print since at least 1964. In 1979, the saying acquired the infrequent title of “Long’s Axiom” ("Long" is unknown).
“An elephant is a mouse built to government specifications” was credited to New Jersey Congressman William B. WIdnall (1906-1983) in 1966, but there is insufficient evidence to determine any coinage for the saying.
A similar phrase became popular in the 1950s—“A camel is a horse designed by a committee.”
You Wouldn’t Believe the Things People Say About Government
An elephant is a mouse built to government specifications.
30 April 1964, Galveston (TX) Daily News, “Today’s Smile,” pg. 1, col. 3:
Description of an elephant: A mouse built according to government specifications.
25 January 1965, Hartford (CT) Courant, ‘Today’s Chuckle,” pg. 1A:
An elephant is a mouse built according to government specifications.
Regional medical complexes for heart disease, cancer, stroke, and other diseases. Hearings, Eighty-ninth Congress, first session.
By United States. Congress. House. Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce.
Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office
It is hard to forget two statements I encountered years ago in the defense business: A giraffe is a horse designed by a committee — and an elephant is a mouse designed and produced under “CPFF”.
The Successful Toastmaster:
A treasure chest of introductions, epigrams, humor, and quotations
By Herbert Victor Prochnow
New York, NY: Harper & Row
An elephant is a mouse built to government specifications. — Congressman William B. Widnall
Google News Archive
16 September 1967, Reading (PA) Eagle, “Capital Capers” by Don Maclean, pg. 4, col. 2:
A lobbyist called yesterday to give me this definition of an elephant: An elephant is a mouse built to government specifications. (This is a corollary to the old gag about a camel being a horse that was designed by a committee.)
White power, black freedom:
Planning the future of urban America
By Arnold Schuchter
Boston, MA: Beacon Press
As Postmaster General Lawrence O’Brien has suggested, more in earnest than in jest, “an elephant is a mouse drawn to government specifications.”
1,001 logical laws, accurate axioms, profound principles, trusty truisms, homey homilies, colorful corollaries, quotable quotes, and rambunctious ruminations for all walks of life
By John Peers, Gordon Bennett and George Booth
Garden City, NY: Doubleday
Long’s Axiom: An elephant is a mouse built to government specifications.
New York City • Government/Law/Politics/Military • (1) Comments • Monday, August 02, 2010 • Permalink
I think Long’s axiom refers to Lazarus Long, a character in a number of Robert Heinlein’s sci-fi novels - seem to remember he had a healthy dislike of over-government.