Friday, April 27, 2012

Public Servant or a New Elite?

C-20 military version Gulfstream-Pay $630 For $32,000 Trip
It is cool to be a public servant! This is a world where Defense Secretary Leon Panetta flys cheap and concerts in the White House play to the President and a few close friends, it seems the perks never end. It could be Americans just don't get it, that they have a blind spot as to what really is wrong with their country. Amid fallout over the secret service boys hiring hookers in Columbia and a lavish GSA conference that cost top officials at the agency their jobs, Panetta recently admitted to paying just $17,000 for his commuting costs for 27 trips back to his Calif., home on a military aircraft.

Before accepting the job as defense secretary, Panetta negotiated his right to commute home to California nearly every weekend using a military equivalent of a Gulfstream jet, as his job as Pentagon chief requires him to do. The trips cost the government as much as $860,000, but Panetta only pays about $630 per round trip for the flight that costs the Pentagon about $32,000. In November of last year, The Washington Times reported that Panetta had flown home 14 times, continuing the cross-country trips he made regularly as director of the CIA and indicated that he had no plans to curtail the trips.

At the time, the Defense Department refused to provide information about Panetta's reimbursements and the Freedom of Information Act requests The Washington Times submitted received no response. “The White House understood when Panetta took the job that he would return to Monterey to visit his family, as he did when he was director of the CIA,” a senior administration official said at the time. With the drawdowns of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as constant terrorism threats and crises, running the Pentagon is anything but a 9-to-5 office job, and the California weekends help him recharge, a government official said at the time, “He works virtually nonstop wherever he is, including on the weekends, and believes that he does some of this best thinking when he’s away from Washington,” the official said.

 The expenses involved with the commute drew another look after President Obama in November called for all Cabinet agencies to cut back on everything, from out-of-town conferences to cellphone use and officials gifts such as pencils and mugs. The president singled out travel as an area ripe for savings. “At a time when families have had to cut back, have had to make some tough decisions about getting rid of things that they don’t need in order to make the investments that they do, we thought that it was entirely appropriate for our governments and our agencies to try to root out waste, large and small, in a systematic way,” Mr. Obama said in announcing the directive.

The issue of Panetta flying on the cheap resurfaced earlier this week after GSA Administrator Martha Johnson resigned following reports that her agency had held a $823,000 conference for employees outside Las Vegas in 2010. Government rules require Panetta to use military jets for personal travel for security and in order to stay in touch with military commanders and senior-level administration officials. Panetta must reimburse the government for personal travel at the cost of an equivalent commercial coach ticket even though the actual cost of the travel is much higher, around $3,200 a flight hour. His ranch has been equipped with a secure telephone and a video-teleconference facility is just a short drive away, aides added that he is in constant touch through email and phone calls.

Although cross-country commuting is an expected part of the job for members of Congress, recent defense secretaries have spent most of their time in Washington or overseas. Robert Gates who retired this year maintained a remote lakeside home in Washington state, which he visited several times a year but not most weekends. Donald H. Rumsfeld, who held the job before Gates had three homes, one in New Mexico, one in Illinois and another on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, all were equipped with secure communication equipment and additional security measures, he also spent most of his weekends or breaks in or near Washington, D.C., according to knowledgeable GOP aides.

For security reasons Panetta and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano are "required to use government aircraft even for personal travel." Much like the government mandates small businesses face every day, it seems someone in Washington can always come up with a justification for the outlandish and the absurd, to those making the rules, the cost is not relevant. It also baffles me as to how any person could be so self-centered as to think they deserve to exercise this "perk" just because it is available to them. The waste of fuel and damage to the environment alone would give most normal people pause, and cause them to minimize long flights.

Moving on to the question of, public servant or a new elite?  It should be noted that the Obamas welcomed Paul McCartney to the White House last year, and recently Barack Obama told his guests in introductory remarks that hosting the concerts is a welcome perk of the presidency. "Some nights when you want to just go out and take a walk, clear your head...Secret Service won't let you, and that's frustrating," he said. “Then there are other nights when Mick Jagger and B.B. King come over to your house and play a concert. So I guess things even out a little bit.”

President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama have hosted a star-studded array of musicians to celebrate over the last several years. The Obamas’ musical push started on Day One when the Wynton Marsalis Quintet played for a private inaugural celebration party of 100 at the White House. A month later, the White House brought in Earth, Wind and Fire to entertain visiting governors. It was just a few days later, the Obamas hosted an East Room tribute to Stevie Wonder that featured Tony Bennett, Martina McBride and Wonder himself.

The takeaway is, of the many choices we make worse things could happen to you then becoming a "public servant" It is not uncommon to see our public servants, some as lowly as a mayor or agency head climbing out of  a limousine, being wined and dined, or on exotic visit or fact-finding mission, all paid for by the taxpayer. They often stay at the best hotels and are given private tours. Do not forget the expense accounts, solid health care coverage, and generous pensions. With perks like these, I suggest Mothers encourage their children to grow up giving consideration to a career in government or as a politician.  

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