Monday, July 28, 2014

Italian Senate- Renzi's reform for a non-elected second Chamber

I have discussed the electoral reform that PM Matteo Renzi is trying to pass. There is an even bigger reform that Renzi is determined to achieve though, a constitutional one indeed: the reform of the Italian upper house, or Senate.

Senato della Repubblica

Currently, Italy has a system known as "perfect bicameralism": both chambers are directly elected during the same general election, and have exactly the same authority on every matter, including monetary ones. This is really rare, especially in parliamentary systems; Italy and Romania are indeed the only two countries in the EU with such a system. Perfectly equal chambers are more easily found in presidential systems, where the distribution of powers between executive and legislature is completely different from a parliamentary system. In the latter, it is generally assumed that the government remains within the legislature and as long as it has a majority it manages to pass its bills, and parliament kind of has to deal with that.
In Italy, perfect bicameralism was justified because, after the fascist era, there was the need to prevent the rise of a new dictatorship, and therefore the equal distribution of powers between chambers had a clear and reasonable aim. It might, however, look a bit anachronistic now and, above all, it also has its problems. The main one is that it takes forever for a bill to be approved. The average time of approval for a bill in Europe is around 200 hours, while in Italy it takes around 600 hours. It is also very expensive: the Italian Senate has over 300 members that, on top of a salary, also receive a life annuity even after the end of their mandate.
What Renzi has been advocating is a reform that would turn the Senate into a non-elected chamber, whose members would be nominated by the regions' administrations. He calls this "Senate of (local) Autonomies", and is based on the German upper house, the Bundesrat, whose members are delegates chosen from the state governments. Because they are delegates, they do not perceive an additional salary, and this would save a lot of money. This kind of second chamber serves merely as a consulting body, and its powers would be almost entirely stripped.
Yet, as virtually any reform, this one also has its cons. A non-elected chamber is not accountable to electors, and perfect bicameralism supporters argue that it gives the government too much power. They claim that it would still be possible to reduce the Senate's powers without reducing to a virtually powerless body, and also to reduce its size while keeping it as an elected chamber.
There is a part of the reform that I really do not appreciate, and that is the introduction of legal immunity for senators. First of all, they wouldn't even be elected, so no, being a senator shouldn't grant them immunity. And second of all, considering how many politicians in Italy are found guilty of any sort of crimes, they really shouldn't be rewarded with immunity, because the whole political class simply does not deserve it.
These days the government is struggling to discuss the Senate reform because the opposition (mainly Grillo's M5S) is trying to slow the process down. Renzi claims that he would be willing to meet with all parties again to discuss changes, but that he wants the essence of the reform to stay as it is.

Disagreements are not surprising. Second chambers are widely discussed institutions in the academic world, and there are also arguments in favour of getting rid of them altogether. The main argument goes like "if a upper chamber is the same as the lower one then it is useless, and if it is different from the lower one it is pernicious". Truth is, the perfect system does not and will never exist, and radically different systems can work equally well where there is the political willingness to make them work. I am afraid that in Italy we can reform the Senate as much as we want, but as long as the political culture remains unchanged, the country will not benefit at all. 

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