Lawmakers shrug at Pentagon chief’s weekend flights home to California

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s weekend trips to his California home on government planes are not a major concern to many lawmakers.

While it is unusual for a cabinet member to be commuting cross-country for weekends, most lawmakers, who generally travel back to their own districts for weekend when Congress is in session, see it as a virtue.

“Secretary Panetta is doing a great job,” Senate Armed Services Committee member Joseph Lieberman (I-Ct.) said Thursday. “I assume this was the deal the administration accepted when he took the job.

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“It’s part of the bargain,” Lieberman said. “He is well worth it.”

Panetta travels from the Washington area to Malibu, Calif., most weekends to spend time with his family when he is not on official Defense Department travel. He did the same when he was CIA director.

The cross-country trips raised some eyebrows in Washington after several media reports put the price of each trip at up to $30,000.

“Ash Carter always wanted to be defense secretary, and now he is,” one defense insider mused recently about the deputy defense secretary. “Secretary Panetta spends so much time in California that it’s essentially left to Carter to run the building.”

Panetta is required to reimburse the government for the price of an equivalent coach airline ticket, but the costs of the flights on sophisticated military jets far exceeds those prices.

“To put it mildly, the secretary doesn't have a nine-to-five job. He’s in the military chain of command,” Pentagon spokesman George Little said Friday. “He works — and makes key decisions--on weekdays and on weekends, no matter where he is — Washington, California, or other parts of the United States or overseas.  He can perform his duties wherever he is, and no matter the time of day or night.

Disclosure of the weekend trips, first reported in September by the L.A. Times, comes as Panetta and other Pentagon officials continue to issue dire warnings about the impact that defense cuts approaching $1 trillion over 10 years loom.

But in a series of interviews, lawmakers expressed few concerns when asked by The Hill about the potential of spending $100,000 a month on Panetta’s personal weekend trips.

Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) said he “would be reluctant to critique someone who is merely trying to maintain a family, a marriage.

“Those are normal human aspirations,” said Lugar, who said the costs of the flights are understandable given the need to have a key member of the national command chain travel in government planes fitted with the most advanced communications systems.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) has not been shy about criticizing Panetta or the Obama administration. But, in a statement provided through an aide, the GOP member expressed no concerns about the trips.

“Chairman McKeon is focused on how the secretary does his job of keeping the country safe,” the aide said. “He isn't concerned about how he spends his weekends.”

Another House GOP hawk who also sits on the Armed Services Committee, Rep. Duncan Hunter (Calif.), said the issue is one for the secretary himself to police.

“This is something for the secretary to grapple with, specifically whether it’s helping the Department or not.  It’s true every dollar counts and it’s something for the secretary to consider, but there are far bigger budget issues ahead with sequestration,” Joe Kasper, Hunter’s spokesman, said in an email. “The department is staring at $1 trillion dollars in cuts over the next decade, in places with real impact to combat effectiveness. That’s the major threat right now to U.S. security, and that’s where Mr. Hunter believes Congress should be setting its sights.”

Even Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a deficit hawk and Tea Party favorite, didn’t complain when told by a reporter of the cost of each flight.

Little said Panetta remains  in charge of the Pentagon on the weekends and abides by regulations on reimbursing the government.

"In addition to the obvious security requirements associated with his job responsibilities, the secretary must be able to stay in touch with the department, military commanders around the world, and other senior national security officials throughout the government,” Little said. “The secretary strictly abides by regulations that require him to reimburse the government when he is on personal business."

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While lawmakers held their fire, one government watchdog was critical.

“This is a perfect illustration of how the Pentagon exists in a fiscal galaxy far, far away,” Laura Peterson, who heads Taxpayers for Common Sense’s national security program, told The Hill. “Only the head of the Defense Department could go to Capitol Hill in the middle of a debt crisis and wail about the fact that his budget might have to grow at a reduced rate, then turn around and hop a [$30,000] flight home because he ‘thinks better’ there.”

But neither her organization nor others that do similar work are calling for Congress to investigate — or even hold hearings about — Panetta’s personal travels.

Liberal Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), one of the Pentagon’s most vocal congressional critics, even sees no reason for the defense secretary to alter his weekend habits.

“There’s no question it’s expensive,” Kucinich said Friday in a telephone interview. But he sees a big virtue in the “leader of the world’s most powerful military going home to be among real people and staying in touch with the concerns of real people.”

"It's a good thing that the leader of world's most powerful military is not ... in Washington conjuring up thoughts of Armageddon," Kucinich said. “What’s the alternative, keeping him sequestered in Disney Land by the Potomac?”