By Eric Fleischauer
U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby said automatic budget cuts scheduled to take effect March 1 are "draconian" but don't reduce spending enough.
The Tuscaloosa Republican voted against the 2011 deal designed to resolve a debate over whether Congress would approve an increase in the debt ceiling.
"It was proposed by the president, and a lot of Republicans and Democrats bought into it," Shelby said Wednesday of the across-the-board budget cuts called sequestration.
"Now we've got ourselves in a corner that's hard to get out of. This is no way to do business."
He said the cuts will hurt good programs as well as bad ones.
"What we should have done is look at every program, not make cuts with a meat ax," Shelby said. "Some people would argue that it's better than no cuts, but it's not responsible."
According to a U.S. Army study, the sequester will drain almost $2 billion from the Alabama economy and affect 25,000 jobs. Huntsville, home to Redstone Arsenal, will be hurt more than most U.S. cities, according to a Wells Fargo report.
About half the cuts mandated by sequestration come from the Defense Department budget.
Morgan County District Attorney Scott Anderson, who attended Shelby's speech at Freight House Restaurant, said he does not know if the sequester will directly affect his office's budget, but he fears the indirect impact.
"High unemployment means the tax base is lower and we have less funding," Anderson said. "With unemployment, you have an increase in crime, which puts more on the plate of law enforcement and the DA's office."
Shelby, in his fifth term as a senator, said government should not be operated "from crisis to crisis," as he said has been the case the past two years.
"It's not the way Congress should run the business of government," Shelby said. "Business and investment need certainty," and small business owners lack certainty when the federal government is unpredictable, he added.
One of those small-business owners, Sandra Sowder, agreed. She owns Freight House Restaurant.
"I want everyone to get along in Washington," Sowder said. "They don't need to agree on everything, but they need to work together."
The biggest problem facing her restaurant business is gas prices, Sowder said. "My costs are higher because of gas prices," she said. "We depend on people from other areas coming here, and high gas prices hamper that. I wish Congress would do something about gas prices."
Shelby said his main concern is the federal debt.
"We're the largest debtor nation in the world. This is something we can't sweep aside," Shelby said. "That's the No. 1 issue facing this nation. Are we going to spend and borrow our way into political bankruptcy?"
The U.S. ratio of debt to gross domestic product is about 73 percent, according to the Congressional Budget Office, almost double that of Norway and Switzerland, slightly below the United Kingdom and Canada, and less than half that of Japan.
Shelby said he supports tax reform that would end "corporate welfare through the tax code," but he would cap income-tax rates at 25 percent.
The Senate is in recess but faces confirmation votes on several controversial cabinet nominations when the session resumes.
Shelby said he has concerns about former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, President Barack Obama's nominee for Sectary of Defense, but he plans to vote for him and expects the Senate to confirm the nomination.
"He's probably as good as we're going to get," Shelby said.
Shelby said he plans to vote in favor of Jack Lew, Obama's nominee for Secretary of the Treasury. Lew formerly served as the White House budget director and chief of staff. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Mobile, has said he will oppose the Lew nomination.
"I've known him a long time," Shelby said of Lew. "I think he's honest and I think he's capable."