Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has made 37 personal trips home to California since he was confirmed in July 2011, costing the American taxpayer an estimated $1.1 million in travel expenses.

According to a flurry of news reports last fall and spring and a confirmation with the secretary’s spokesman last week, Panetta is required to pay back at least the price of a coach round-trip ticket for each personal excursion. As of April, he reimbursed the government $17,000 for his 27 weekend and holiday trips home to Monterey, California, where his family owns a 12-acre Walnut farm in Carmel Valley. If you include the 10 trips he made since April, he would owe about $6,700 more, leaving the taxpayer with a $976,300 bill.

The cost is so high because unlike other cabinet heads, Panetta is required — under government rules established by President George W. Bush — to fly on military aircraft outfitted with secure communications equipment that keeps him in touch with the President, the National Security Council, the Joint Chiefs, combatant commanders in the field, and the Pentagon, according to his spokesman. He typically flies in a C-37A, which his spokesman says is the lowest cost aircraft for the specifications required. Panetta also brings with him each time a small staff, including a military aide and security.

According to an Associated Press report in April, each trip costs $3,200 per hour, or about $32,000 each time. For his part, Panetta is said to be working, not resting, when he goes home, and has often “coupled” his trips with stops at military bases. For example, a few timelines have found Panetta making remarks about the defense budget from Monterey. By Friday, press reports had him popping up at an air reserve base in Niagara Falls, assuring there would be another mission and the base would not be subject to closure due to budget cuts (the visit, or at least his remarks to the reserve personnel on hand, had the air of a campaign whistle stop).

Either way, Panetta has made no attempt to mislead the media about his personal travels, but he has tried to downplay the expense. In fact, when pressed about this last spring, he maintained that although he “regretted” the elaborate cost to the taxpayer, he thinks “it’s healthy to get out of Washington periodically just to get your mind straight and your perspective straight.”

“I regret that it does, you know, that it does add costs that the taxpayer has to pick up,” Panetta said during an April Pentagon briefing. “A taxpayer would have to pick up those costs with any secretary of state or secretary of defense. But having said that, I am trying to look at what are … the alternatives here that I can look at that might possibly be able to save funds and, at the same time, be able to fulfill my responsibilities, not only to my job, but to my family.”

But these trips as reported are not “periodic,” they occurred nearly every weekend when the secretary wasn’t traveling across the globe on DoD business. His spokesman confirmed 10 trips since April. In the intervening months, Panetta has traveled to Hawaii, Singapore, Vietnam, India, Afghanistan, Tunisia, Egypt, Israel, and Jordan on official duty. Given the numbers, it sounds like Panetta was telecommuting from Monterey quite a bit this summer. While those of us who live here would agree that time spent outside of Washington during these months is certainly “healthy,” Panetta seems to be overextending himself.

According to The Washington Times, as of last fall there is only one other member of President Obama’s cabinet who spends weekends at home, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. He moved his family to New York last August and travels home on commercial aircraft and at his own expense each weekend. Meanwhile, the AP noted that “Panetta’s two predecessors didn’t make such frequent, long trips back home.” Robert Gates, who handed Panetta the baton last summer, spent most of his time in Washington but traveled “occasionally” to his family home in Washington state. Before that, according to the APSecretary Donald Rumsfeld also lived in the D.C area most of the time, but often spent weekends at his house in St. Michaels on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, about two hours away.

When these reports emerged last fall with a piece in The Los Angeles Times, and were raised again in April, the administration stood by Panetta, signaling to the rest of us that weekend travel was part of the deal when Panetta, then CIA director, was tapped to replace Gates as DoD chief. Panetta, 74, has been in Washington for a long time — he represented his Monterey district in Congress for 15 years, and went on to serve as President Clinton’s OMB Director and later Chief of Staff, before leaving Washington to establish the Panetta Institute for Public Policy at the University of California. He returned to join Obama’s CIA as director in 2009. When taking on his most recent position in July 2011, he reportedly made it clear he would be traveling home as regularly as he did when worked for the Clinton White House, though those trips were paid for out of his own pocket, and for the CIA (those trips and costs are classified, according to The Washington Post).

Though the media has attempted to draw attention to the situation “particularly after President Obama issued marching orders … calling for all Cabinet agencies to cut back on everything including cellphone use and official gifts such as mugs” and travel as an area “ripe for savings,” Panetta’s expenses seem to bother no one on Capitol Hill, according to The Hill in a December report. “Leon is doing an important job for the country, really, a service to the country at the age of 73 after a long career … I don’t think people are going to begrudge him going home and seeing his family,” David Axelrod, Obama’s chief political adviser, told CNN’s “State of the Union” in April.

“This is not about him just using that airplane to get himself back and forth to the West Coast every weekend,” maintained Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who rushed to the secretary’s defense in the April hearing, adding, “he doesn’t get much rest in California, based on the number of times I know that I’m in contact with him.”

“It’s not something I would do if I were defense secretary, but I’m not going to make a big deal out of it,” said Sen. John McCain, Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Secretary Panetta is doing a great job,” Senate Armed Services Committee member Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) told The Hill. “I assume this was the deal the administration accepted when he took the job.” But that doesn’t mean everyone is willing to give him a pass. Chris Stirewalt of recently weighed in, asking, “Leon Panetta: Worth The Price?”:

The rules require Panetta to compensate the taxpayers for the cost of a commercial plane ticket: about $630. Of course, $630 wouldn’t get Panetta a private ride on a jet that leaves and returns at times of his choosing, but the secretary says he has no choice. It’s harder to make that argument, though, when you are the one calling for deep cuts in Defense spending and also issue the orders that cause a soldier making $20,000 a year to uproot his family to the other side of the country or separate from them entirely. Privates shipped to Ft. Bliss don’t get to spend their weekends at home. … The unhappiest question that Panetta’s travel begs is this: Is there no other qualified person who could serve as secretary of Defense who would relocate to the Washington metro area for the job? Why are his services worth an extra $20,000 a week in average travel costs?

Just last week I asked Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, what he thought of Panetta’s travel on our dime. “I think when you look at the Defense Department and your talking well over a half a trillion dollar budget … the secretary traveling back and forth isn’t a huge amount. But this is about optics. Especially when other parts of the government are bring asked to sacrifice — is it too much to ask that he don’t fly home as often? He must recognize that while it’s important for his mental health and important to have time at home, it’s also important that he set the right tone in his own department.”

Danielle Brian, executive director of the Washington watchdog group, Project on Government Oversight (POGO) was slightly less forgiving. “I’m not sure there is a good clear formula in knowing when travel home is too much – I think it’s like pornography. You know it when you see it. And Panetta’s 27 trips in less than a year is not only too much, but makes me wonder why he isn’t too busy to be going all the way back to California twice a month,” she wrote in an email exchange. “Doesn’t he have too much to do?”

To be fair, Panetta’s travel on official business is quite grueling and the geopolitics thorny and difficult. And if Obama’s purpose in appointing Panetta was to maintain cohesion and consistency, and to take advantage of Panetta’s bureaucratic experience as the administration navigated two war fronts and an expected budget crisis, Panetta, despite the occasional gaffe, seems to be meeting expectations. As The Washington Post noted upon his appointment, “[Panetta] is more a political than a policy animal and can be trusted to protect Obama’s interests as the 2012 election approaches.” In that regard, he seems to be doing his part effectively, too.

But the fact remains, we are in an era of putative sacrifice — personal and professional. Panetta said as much himself in January in a PBS “Newshour” interview when he talked about the “hard choices” the military would have to make to realize the nearly $450 billion in budget cuts over the next decade announced in 2011.

But no one really seems to expect the DoD to take on the same sacrifices as the rest of the government, or even the rest of America, for that matter. While it is certainly not entirely Mr. Panetta’s fault, he is the department head and de facto human face of the sprawling military industrial complex and one of Washington’s largest bureaucracies. As of Friday in my exchange with Panetta’s spokesperson, he did not say whether Panetta had found any cost-cutting “alternatives” since he made the pledge in April to do so, but only that Panetta had continued to fly home 10 times since then and that it was all above-board.

Holding the secretary to his promise to explore “alternatives” for “cost savings” certainly won’t scratch the surface of all the waste and abuse going on in the Pentagon’s budget. That, by the way, is well-documented, and even Panetta acknowledges the Pentagon is the only federal agency that isn’t ready for a federal audit. But like Ellis said, it’s about optics. No one wants to “begrudge” a 74-year-old man who has given his life to public service the opportunity to spend downtime with his wife and family, but it would seem that American life is plenty riddled with such personal forfeitures — take the mother with two jobs, who has to face stoically the notion that day care workers are witnessing her baby’s “firsts” or has to squeeze in 20-30 minutes of “quality time” each night just before her sleepy children nod off for bed. No doubt she would love to telecommute, too.

If you cannot picture her, then think about the staff Panetta drags home on every holiday and long weekend, in addition to all that global travel. Do they not have families too? Or the enlisted guys (and gals) who since 2001 have endured multiple overseas deployments while watching their children grow up on Skype, or have suffered through ugly divorces because the time away rendered their marriage, well, too brittle and weak to last.

Panetta’s travel expenses are symbolic, yes. But I drove through many declining or plain dead old mill and manufacturing towns this summer on the East Coast where a $175 flight on Southwest Airlines for a trip to Myrtle Beach or Ocean City would have been a tremendous treat to anyone. In this context, $32,000 for a weekend jaunt home — 37 times since July 2011 — is a luxury most Americans cannot afford. In today’s climate, it just seems wrong.