The Washington Post

Defense of Leon Panetta’s costly flights only goes so far

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is facing criticism of the cost — more than $800,000 — of flights he’s taken home to California since July. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

Should the government pick up the tab for Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to fly home nearly every weekend at an eye-popping cost of roughly $3,000 per hour?

The answer isn’t simple. Panetta is doing an extraordinarily difficult job — one that he surely does not need at age 73 after a long and successful career — and deserves to make it home in his downtime. And unlike other powerful people with demanding jobs in other cities, he cannot be expected to hop on a commercial jet or even fly in a private plane that is not properly secured, especially if he is taking sensitive military communications equipment with him. I also highly doubt there is much downtime during those weekends, as Gen. Martin E. Dempsey confirmed during a news conference Monday.

And yet, the cost footed by taxpayers is enormous: Some $3,000 an hour for the C-37 military plane, totaling more than $800,000 since he took the job in July. Although Panetta has said he regrets the cost to taxpayers, and plans to look for less expensive alternatives, the nearly 30 trips he’s made to his home in California, where his wife lives, do look a bit excessive. He does not have young children (his are grown), so the argument that their lives shouldn’t be disrupted doesn’t hold in this case.

The answer, of course, is somewhere in the middle: While Panetta does need to fly military planes home on occasion, the amount he has done so looks to be over the top. And that’s not just because of the absolute dollar amount. At a time when he is asking for cuts in the nation’s massive defense budget, the right thing to do as a leader is to cut back his own expenses, too.

Instead, Panetta appears to be spending more. The Wall Street Journal reports that Robert Gates, Panetta’s predecessor, had a home in Washington State, where his wife remained, but Gates made less frequent visits home. Even if the Defense budget is bloated and needs to be cut by at least the 1 percent it will shrink next year — the first time it will decline since 1998 — it would look better if Panetta’s personal travel expense was shrinking alongside it.

Think back to the financial crisis. While some CEOs still made out royally even as their companies’ bottom lines and their employees’ paychecks suffered (that is, if they were still getting paychecks at all), many others opted not to take their bonus or to cut their salaries in line with the pay cuts they were exacting from employees. Even if a 20-percent cut on a $1 million salary was largely symbolic when it amounted to a fraction of the $15 million the CEO was due to make in stock options and equity grants, trimming costs when your employees are being asked to do the same does matter.

For leaders in any field, optics count when it comes to cutbacks. Symbolic moves can far outweigh their actual cost when it comes to the front-line employees (in this case, actual ones) thinking leaders are sharing in the pain. At a time when the people who work for him are being asked to pay more toward their health insurance premiums and to generally do more with less, it would help if Panetta did the same in this regard. If he doesn’t, the cost to the military in lower morale could be far more than the $30,000 a week it costs to fly him home.

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View Photo Gallery: Washington Post readers respond to the article “How to completely, utterly destroy an employee’s work life,” and share their own “advice” for making employees miserable.

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.



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