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Washington Spending in Perspective

April 16, 2012: Witnesses prepare to testify before a House committee on General Services Administration spending. Being sworn in, from left, are: GSA Inspector General Brian Miller; former GSA Administrator Martha Johnson; Jeff Neely, former regional commissioner of the Public Buildings Service, Pacific Rim Region; GSA Chief of Staff Michael Robertson; and David Foley, deputy commissioner of the GSA Public Buildings Service. (AP)

What’s worse: Leon Panetta spending $860,000 in taxpayer money flying home to see his family? Or the GSA spending $823,000 on a conference in Las Vegas? Certainly, the latter has received far, far more attention.

The GSA story has been in the news for days, with four separate hearings scheduled before various Congressional committees. So far, senior officials have been ordered to repay $5600 out of their own pockets. They’ve rightly been lampooned on the late night comedy circuit for some rather silly and lavish spending.

AP broke the Panetta story 11 days ago and I somehow missed it until this morning. The key facts: “The Pentagon chief has traveled on military aircraft to his home in northern California more than two dozen times since he took the defense post in July — trips that have cost the government about $32,000 each. Panetta, in turn, has reimbursed the government about $630 per roundtrip for the personal flights, based on longstanding formulas dictated by federal policies.”

So, to be clear: Panetta has done nothing illegal or even particularly unusual. While he could obviously avoid this spending by moving his family to Washington–certainly, it’s not unheard of–the Secretary of Defense is entitled to fly on his department’s very expensive aircraft and reimburse the taxpayer the relatively bargain price of a coach class commercial ticket. That’s been the law for quite some time; it’s not some secret loophole Panetta is exploiting. Further, he made it clear when he took the job that he would do so only on the precondition that he would be able to fly home to California regularly.

As Time‘s Mark Thompson points out, while $860,000 is a lot of money, it amounts to “42 seconds of Pentagon spending.” And, he observes, that as a military reporter who has “traveled around the world with several defense secretaries, and seen them in action up close, around the globe and inside the Pentagon,” he sees no problem with it. ” It is a grueling, relentless job. If Panetta wants to jet off to his California walnut farm to tend to a different kind of nut than those he has to deal with daily in the capital, he should. A clear-headed defense secretary – one who is making life-and-death decisions constantly – is worth the investment.”

I’m inclined to agree but still have reservations with cabinet officials, congressional leaders, and even the president’s family doing personal business on the taxpayer dime at extremely high markup. It seems more than a little undemocratic.

At the same time, I’m less apoplectic than most seem to be over things like the GSA boondoggle.  It was, no doubt, lavish and excessive. Still, it amounted to $2742 per attendee. For a work-related, team building exercise that likely had real benefits in morale.  Why is that a criminal outrage worthy of Congressional investigation and days of spleen venting by the TV talking heads while Panetta’s  spending $32,000 on personal business every weekend is business as usual?

Hat tips: Josh Rogin and Mark Thompson

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Curtis says:

    Well, as you say, Panetta made it a condition of his taking the position. The nation has seen more than one ineffective defense secretary cost us a lot more in money and in lives than this one has.

    The Vegas week was over the top, and it was done by the very agency that is supposed to promote frugality in government. The optics are just plain horrible. And whatever we think of his policies, it is remarkable how competent this administration has been. I figured with the stimulus we’d be in for years of stories of $7400 wrenches and the like. But there hasn’t been, despite the demand.

    One other quick aside: how many years in a row have federal employees had their salaries frozen? An over the top morale-boosting conference is a lot more tempting when people are feeling blamed for the state of the country. It was still poor decision making, but more understandable in context.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  2. anjin-san says:

    Why is that a criminal outrage worthy of Congressional investigation

    Because Fox is committed to presenting the Obama administration as being scandal plagued?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 2

  3. Congressional oversight of agencies like the GSA is completely legitimate and one of the more important tasks that Congress can undertake.

    Is it often motivated by politics? Yes. Surprisingly, many things that happen on Capitol Hill are motivated by politics. Also, there’s gambling going on at Rick’s.

    In any event, as I noted this morning, there may be a lot more going on with this GSA story than just a lavish trip to Vegas.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  4. Gustopher says:

    I bet the morale will be boosted further by congressional hearings. It’s not terribly egregious, if this is the outrage du jour, then the day must not have been very outrageous — scraping the bottom of the barrel on this one.

    And I don’t begrudge Panetta his trips home, But at $32,000 a pop, I think we could hire someone to find cheaper, more luxurious travel arrangements some of the time — so we could save money and have stories about Panetta’s special assistant buying out the entirety of first class so he never has to smell another passenger.

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  5. “Panetta, in turn, has reimbursed the government about $630 per roundtrip for the personal flights, based on longstanding formulas dictated by federal policies.”

    I’m sure those rules were invented on the assumption that you were deadheading, and not scheduling a private flight.

    “In aviation, deadheading is a term used when members of an airline’s flight staff are carried free of charge but not working. This most often happens when airline crew are located in the wrong place and need to travel to take up their duties. This is also known as positioning.”

    So if Panetta had essentially a private plane, and paid headhead rates, it is a scandal worthy of attention, yes.

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  6. @Curtis:

    Well, as you say, Panetta made it a condition of his taking the position. The nation has seen more than one ineffective defense secretary cost us a lot more in money and in lives than this one has.

    In that case, you should not have the charade of $630 reimbursement, the full $32,000 should be treated as compensation, and taxable income.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  7. Nightrider says:

    Panetta flew commercial flights home for prior federal jobs. Under a GWB-era rule, the SecDef is not supposed to fly on commercial flights, which is presumably why he doesn’t — not because he wants “lavish” military flights. I guess the theory is that we don’t want to be in a confidential crisis situation and the SecDef is sitting next to god-knows-who on a commercial plane trying to handle it from his cell phone.

    The GSA thing strikes me as worse. Of course, there’s also this Medicare thing that has some effect on the budget.

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  8. certainly, it’s not unheard of–the Secretary of Defense is entitled to fly on his department’s very expensive aircraft and reimburse the taxpayer the relatively bargain price of a coach class commercial ticket.

    This actually makes sense though. We can’t afford to have the Secretary of Defense unavailable for six hours if a crisis breaks out because we’re waiting for his commercial airline flight to land.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  9. @Nightrider:

    Under a GWB-era rule, the SecDef is not supposed to fly on commercial flights

    OK well, if there’s a rule, there’s a rule. And complaint withdrawn.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  10. Grrr. Mostly withdrawn. Panetta really should have come up with something that cost less than $860,000

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  11. JKB says:

    I think the rule goes back further than GWB.

    In any case, the SecDef has to have secure comms at all times. Not to mention, his security detail and aides. So while the aircraft might cost $32k, and he’s only reimbursing the commercial airfare, if he flew commercial, the government would still be out the airfare for his security detail and aides, etc.

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  12. al-Ameda says:

    Somehow I think that cutting taxes while waging 2 wars is probably more significant than the fact that the Secretary of Defense (who is on call 365/24/7) flies on Military Aircraft when returning to his home.

    The GSA Conference? That is another matter.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  13. Wayne says:

    Large spending and or travel expenses of the President or Cabinet member does not excuse the outrageous spending of a government agency.

    Just because the total dollars are the close to the same does not make the two expenses comparable. A conference with 1000 people with the total expense being the same as a conference with 10 does not justify the expense of the 10. Also Penetta is Obama’s cabinet member. The left blaming Republicans for him is asinine.

    All that said IMO these government travel expenses across the board have gotten out of hand. The President, Speaker of the House and Cabinet members travel has all gotten out of hand. Yes they need special consideration and travel arrangements but they don’t need to live like a Saudi King on the taxpayers’ money. I have no problem with the Speaker of House using an Air Force jet to travel. However they don’t need to take a large jet and travel with a large “posse”. They also don’t need to travel in luxury with booze and food provided for all. Even the President where his wife leaves two hours before to go to same place or having a large “posse” tag along should be frown upon.

    The economy sucks and instead of looking for ways to cut expenses, this administration and government are living high on the hog.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 3

  14. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Ah, relativism, is there any issue it can’t cloud up like Hichcockian fog?

    There’s a difference between arguably the 3rd most powerful man in the entire government taking some time off each week at taxpayers’ expense to clear his head and to recharge his batteries, and on the other hand a group of muckety muck desk jockeys partying in Vegas with taxpayer money. Hence the different treatment.

    That all said, Panetta too is a grave disappointment on this particular front. This isn’t a guy on the breadline. He should be reimbursing the Treasury in full.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  15. al-Ameda says:

    @Tsar Nicholas:
    LOL Nick!
    First you say there is a relative difference between the GSA debacle and Panetta taking Military Flights, and then you say that effectively, there is no difference.

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  16. PJ says:

    $860,000? That’s less than 3 minutes of the current cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 2

  17. John D'Geek says:

    I’m curious as to where they came up with this figure? I’m guessing that this is one of the Air Force’s “private jets” (like they use for Generals)? ‘Cuz if he’s on a C-5 smooshed with Privates and 2nd Lt.’s, that number is way too high. Even with a private plane, it still seems a bit artificially inflated.

    Even so, I can’t say I have a problem with the SoD taking a military plane when he/she goes home for a visit. Or to Hawaii for vacation for that matter. I just consider that part of the job requirements. I sure as heck wouldn’t want to see Hilary Clinton next to me on my next flight — she should be safer than that.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  18. James Joyner says:

    @John D’Geek: No, SECDEF isn’t just hopping a Space-A flight. AP reports, “Panetta flies on an Air Force C-37 – comparable to a Gulfstream jet – which is the lowest-cost aircraft that can carry the necessary communications equipment.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  19. PD Shaw says:

    I don’t want to single out Panetta as doing anything unusual, but the economy is crap, there doesn’t appear to be any ability to raise taxes to deal with the defecit as long as there is a wide-spread perception that the government spends inefficiently ( . . . waste, fraud and abuse).

    And while Panetta seems like a descent fellow, but he’s being treated like the single indispensible man. If he doesn’t get this perk, he’ll quit and then where will we be? How about just turning over the keys to the Assistant Secretary now and then?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  20. Scott F. says:

    I’m amazed how glibly you passed over Mark Thompson’s critical point. $860,000 represents “…42 seconds of Pentagon spending.”

    You’re pinching micro-pennies. Certainly we can find some savings in the other 31,557,558 seconds of the Pentagon’s annual outlays.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  21. anjin-san says:

    If he doesn’t get this perk

    Based on the discussion we have had, it is not a “perk”, it is a national security requirement. Why is th right playing politics with national security? Force of habit, perhaps?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

  22. anjin-san says:

    there doesn’t appear to be any ability to raise taxes to deal with the defecit as long as there is a wide-spread perception that the government spends inefficiently ( . . . waste, fraud and abuse). Republicans put party dogma above the need to govern.

    FTFY

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  23. Davebo says:

    “Panetta flies on an Air Force C-37 – comparable to a Gulfstream jet – which is the Actually the C0lowest-cost aircraft that can carry the necessary communications equipment.”

    Well, actually the C-37 is a Gulfstream G5. But you could buy an Boeing Business Jet (executive 737) for what a G550 would cost you. And cost of operation wouldn’t be very different if at all.

    We should call the 89th Wing! Get Leon in a BBJ.

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  24. @JKB:

    Taxes are low because (a) nobody likes paying taxes, and (b) no one fears the debt and deficit more than they like paying low taxes.

    Those knuckleheads in the 50′s and 60′s paid them because they thought they had to, not because they wanted to, or because they thought government perfectly spent every dime.

    Other than that, a Republican is going to run on low taxes. Deficits don’t matter. Get with the program.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  25. Racehorse says:

    I would like to see a study done concerning US presidents’ travel: number of trips per president, cost, reason for trip, if the trip was a success or achieved what it was supposed to.
    This should go all the way back to Roosevelt (TR). Maybe such a study already exists. It certainly would make a great book. I am not singling out Obama. I don’t think that he is any worse or better than the others. But how can we find out? I do think that taking two 747 jets full of reporters, staff, and congressman is a bit much.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  26. James Joyner says:

    @Scott F.: I fully acknowledge in the post that this is a teeny drop in the bucket. My question, though, is why very little outrage over this versus an even smaller drop spread out over dozens of GSA employees.

    @anjin-san: It’s a national security requirement that he be in constant communication with the rest of the chain of command. It’s not a national security requirement that his family live 3000 miles away and that he visit them every weekend.

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  27. Moosebreath says:

    john personna,

    “Those knuckleheads in the 50′s and 60′s paid them because they thought they had to, not because they wanted to, or because they thought government perfectly spent every dime.”

    I disagree. They paid them because (i) their life experiences (Depression, WWII) taught them that the problems they faced were much easier solved through governmental action than through individual efforts and (ii) because taxes were highly progressive and the 90+% rates were paid by only a relative handful of people. Neither is the case today, as life experiences (and deliberate rhetorical excess) for the past 40+ years have shown government action can do more harm than good and taxes are relatively flat once you get past the poor, making it affect the average person more.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  28. @Moosebreath:

    You could add WWII in there as successful group action, but I don’t think I’m wrong in my cynicism. Remember, no one is really opposed to spending. They don’t cut spending, just taxes.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  29. On my phone, missed WWII, first pass.

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  30. anjin-san says:

    It’s not a national security requirement that his family live 3000 miles away and that he visit them every weekend.

    What standard is being used to label Panetta’s travel costs as outrageous? Let’s see some data for say, the 20 most senior members of the US government going back over a the last 2 (each) Democratic and Republican administrations.

    If someone can build a legitimate business case that what Panetta is doing is egregiously excessive by that standard, I will call the White House to complain. I don’t like waste any more than the next taxpayer. On the other hand, I don’t recall any Republicans complaining about the cost of ferrying Rumsfeld down to Crawford so he could play cowboy with President Bush.

    Failing that, I am writing this off as a partisan attempt to manufacture a scandal during an election year. Fox has been beating the scandal drums long and hard – the “spreading scandal” at the GSA, Fast and Furious & Solyndra rebranded as Watergate and Teapot Dome. If there is a real scandal here, let’s see the meat on the bone…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  31. Tillman says:

    @anjin-san:

    Fox has been beating the scandal drums long and hard – the “spreading scandal” at the GSA, Fast and Furious & Solyndra rebranded as Watergate and Teapot Dome.

    Isn’t that funny? If Fox could find a personal scandal involving the president and, say, sex with another woman besides his wife, they’d leap on that in a heartbeat, even if it didn’t have anything to do with the issues of the nation. So, since they can’t find one, they report on lesser scandals and inflate them to comic proportions. It’s no wonder a segment of Republican voters thinks the Obama administration is a bunch of incompetent monkeys.

    (Nota bene: I don’t consider Fast & Furious a minor scandal, but the other two certainly.)

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  32. Related:

    Lobby more, pay less in taxes

    … if you want to get into the billions.

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  33. Moderate Mom says:

    Panetta was the CIA Director before becoming Sec Def. How often did he travel home then? What was the mode of transportation? I would think being CIA Director would also entail being in touch constantly too. Was he flying government transport then? Just curious if anyone knows.

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