Raised by Italian immigrant parents, Panetta received a bachelor's degree and law degree from Santa Clara University. After serving in the U.S. Army from 1964 to 1966, he became a legislative aide in the Senate. In 1971 Panetta rose to become head of the U.S. Office for Civil Rights under President Richard Nixon and later an executive assistant to New York City Mayor John Lindsay. In 1976 Panetta was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat from the California Monterey area, and reelected nine times. As chairman of the House Budget Committee, Panetta was credited as a budget hawk that reached across the aisle, while repeatedly voted against the Reagan Administration on military initiatives.
Panetta served as director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Bill Clinton and was promoted to White House chief of staff in 1994. In 1997 he became director of Leon & Sylvia Panetta Institute for Public Policy, a leadership non-profit based at California State University. In 2006 Panetta was a member of the Iraq Study Group, along with former Secretary of State James Baker and future-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
Panetta is married and has three sons and five grandchildren.