Proof that the political myopia that brought this city to its knees is still virulent can be found in the private comments of a reform Democrat generally considered more realistic than his colleagues.
"There is no fiscal crisis," he said. "Whatever happens, Washington will not - cannot - let us go under. The decision against bankruptcy was made for all time. There will be some noise from the Proxmires and the like, but they will not let us go under. We all know that."
Just such false confidence tempted the city council to and increase salaries for themselves and other elected officials (from $20,000 a year to $30,000 for city councilmen, who generally meet once a week and have outside jobs). Outraged screams from Washington led by Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.), Senate Banking Committee chairman, finally caused the city council Monday to reluctantly rescind the raises.
One New Yorker who understands the mood in Washington and the rest of the country is Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. He privately considered chances for congressional renewal of the seasonal borrowing act - essential to tide over the city's finances - as no better than 50-50 before the wage increase.
Chances were made considerably poorer by the arrogant display of self-indulgence by the city council, even though rescinded under pressure, Liberal Sen. Edward Brooke (R-Mass.), senior Republican on the Banking Committee, has very nearly closed the door against supporting the financing legislation. If the bill fails in a committee as liberal as Banking, it will surely end up in the wastebasket.
The attempted city council pay increase, while insignificant in total dollars, confirms the widespread suspicions in Washington that New York politics-as-usual is the watchword at city hall. "To those people," one high-ranking Carter administration official told us, "Proxmire's warnings are like reports from Cairo" - distant, exaggerated, not to be taken seriously.
With mayor-elect Edward Koch's incoming administration confronting immediate municipal wage negotiations that will demand firmness and courage, the city council has started him off in an impossible position. "How can we deny a wage increase for a $12,000-a-year city worker," a Koch lieutenant asked us, "when the city councilmen want $30,000 for coming in one afternoon a week?"
Even without the burden imposed by the city councilmen, New York's best friends in the Carter administration knew they would get no free ride in Congress with even liberal lawmakers on the warpath. Members of the Senate Banking Committee - especially Proxmire, Brooke and Sen. John Heinz (R-Pa.) - have become experts in the jungle of city finances. No longer will a simple promise suffice.
Finishing 12 years as a member of Congress, Koch knows exactly how his city is viewed on Capitol Hill and is well aware of the imperative to cut costs. But events since the election tend to reduce hopes for a new firmness at city hall.
When Koch's aides persuaded him not to name a first deputy mayor, that eliminated respected lawyer-politican Edward Costikyan - who had been expected to be a strong force for economy. Herman Badillo, resigning from Congress to become a deputy mayor is the city's foremost Puerto Rican political leader. Basil Paterson is a prominent black leader who, as another new deputy mayor, will be negotiating wage agreements with some heavily black municipal unions.
The question asked by Costikyan's friends and echoed by others is this: Who will say "No" for Ed Koch? Certainly not Herman Badillo or Basil Paterson. To stop his administration from following its predecessors down the primrose path by saying "Yes" to every request, the naysayer will have to be Koch himself.
But even his supporters doubt whether Koch fully understands the enormity of what has happened here: A huge population transfer, with other states sending in their least productive citizens as exports. The rise in many symptoms of social disorganization such as illegitimacy and illiteracy is out control. Now, the rest of the country says - through its representatives in Congress - it will no longer finance this population transfer.
But it is impossible for city hall politicians to grapple with such mind-boggling concepts when they disregard the realities of 1977 so blatantly as to try to boost their own salaries by 50 per cent. Viewing Sen. Proxmire's jeremiads as "reports from Cairo," they may soon be sorely disappointed.