Marty: Secretary Panetta goes too far with trips

Pen and paper

Five seconds after the first prehistoric human expressed the notion of being in charge they looked around, picked out the best place to sleep, and reserved it for themselves; thus was born the pecking order. The next morning someone offered “the leader” an extra handful of food for the second best place to sleep; thus was born nest feathering. We’ve been stuck with the concepts of both privilege and corruption ever since.  

We’ve grown so used to them that we hardly notice as the headlines go by – ho hum business as usual. Except for the worst abuses, the City of Bell, for example, we don’t even get angry. Then occasionally, something relatively small happens involving someone you respect and all you can think of is disappointment. That’s how I feel about Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s 27 round trips from Washington, D.C. to his home in Monterey on weekends in only nine months, at a taxpayer expense of $840,000.

The cost of each trip, about $32,000, is not the issue. Panetta needs secure communications and protection. He cannot just hop on an airliner. He also reimbursed the taxpayers the cost of a commercial ticket, about $630 a trip.

What I don’t understand is why he had to take 27 trips home in only nine months since taking the job.

Panetta has said he regretted the added costs to taxpayers, but also defended them, saying his family is there and that “it’s healthy to get out of Washington periodically just to get your mind straight and your perspective straight.” Averaging three trips a month is a lot of perspective straightening for someone implementing the administration’s proposed $12.9 billion cuts in retired military heath care over five years. How tight is the budget if the secretary of defense is going home so often on big public bucks?

The Pentagon reported Panetta partially combined nine of those trips with official duties to offset some of the cost. Fair enough, but those nine times – about once a month – should have been plenty; eighteen more is overdoing it.

There are thousands of American troops in combat zones separated from their families, some in their fourth tour. The government thinks that one trip a year on Uncle Sam is about right – and I agree. No one expects the secretary of defense to go slogging through the mud or to live in a tent, but he has an option the troops do not. If he simply must see more of his family, he can fly them to Washington on a commercial flight at his own expense. If he has to get out of town, he can drive to Virginia.

Panetta makes only $199,700 a year and I’m sure he is worth a lot more, but he was a member of the House for 16 years, director of the CIA, and held other key jobs; he knows the ropes and the principle of leadership by example. Sure, $840,000 is a flyspeck in our total budget as was the GSA’s $823,000 party in Las Vegas, but ubiquitous waste adds up very fast and it undermines all arguments on taxes. Wasted dollars will be replaced by other taxes or diverted from important programs like the VA whose backlog in veterans’ disability claims over 125 days old has gone from 200,000 a year ago to 450,000 today.

I’m afraid this looks like what it was, a lapse in judgment because it’s all OPM – other people’s money.

Personal note: The administration’s proposal to cut $12.9 billion in health care for military retirees is unlikely to affect me due to my age and income.

Marty Richman is a Hollister resident whose column appears Tuesdays.

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