Panetta: The Budget 'Went to S---' After I Left Congress

By Elizabeth Harrington | December 14, 2012 | 7:24 AM EST

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta speaks to the troops during a visit to Kandahar Airfield in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, Pool)

( – Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says when he served in Congress, lawmakers had the "courage to make tough decisions" and balance budgets, but it "all went to s--- after that."

"I've spent 40 years of my life in public service in different capacities," Panetta told soldiers at a town hall in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Thursday. 

"Obviously, every one of those positions has involved challenges that have been very special to me," Panetta said. "In the Congress, I worked on budgets.

"Frankly, at that time we had the courage to make some tough decisions and eventually balance the federal budget," he said. "And then it all went to s--- after that."

Panetta served as a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1977 to 1993, representing California's 16th district. By 1989 he had risen to House Budget Committee chairman.

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Compared to the $1-trillion-plus deficits of the past four years, the federal government had a relatively modest deficit of $255 billion in 1993, the year Panetta left Congress.

In response to a question from one of the troops in Kandahar on Thursday, Panetta said his proudest achievements as defense secretary include working with other military leaders to formulate a new defense strategy, and helping to open up military service to anyone who wants to serve by expanding roles for women and ending the "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy.

“I think that when it comes to serving the United States of America, anybody who wants to serve this country ought to have the opportunity to do it,” he said.

After Panetta left Kandahar and returned to Kabul, insurgents detonated a car bomb near Kandahar Airfield, killing one service member and wounded three others and several Afghans, the Defense Department said.

Panetta was in Afghanistan as part of his mission to help President Obama decide how many U.S. troops to leave behind when the U.S. pulls most troops out in 2014. In addition to conferring with U.S. military leaders, he also met with Afghan leaders.