Italian Senate Reform?

Institutional reform does take place in other democracies.

Italian-flagVia the BBC:  Italian Senate votes to slash its size and powers

Senators in Italy have voted in favour of sweeping reforms that could lead to a dramatic reduction in the size and power of the upper house of parliament.

The reforms have been spearheaded by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi as part of a plan to lift Italy out of recession.

They aim to make the Senate an unelected body, less able to challenge laws proposed in the lower house.

However, the reforms will require more debate – and a possible referendum – before being passed into law.

For someone with my research interests, this was an attention-grabbing headline (it was also far less depressing a read that the major headline on the BBC at the moment, which include Iraq, Gaza, Ukraine, and Ebola).

Reuters has more details on the proposed reforms:

The changes, agreed by party officials late on Friday, are intended to create the conditions for more stable government. They would concentrate power in the lower house and make it easier for a party to win a reliable parliamentary majority.

Under the current system of “perfect bicameralism,” the Senate has virtually equal powers with the lower house but is elected through regional votes rather than a single national ballot. That increases the chances the two houses will end up with different majorities.

Under the accord, the Senate would become a regional chamber which would lose its power to pass legislation and to vote “no confidence” and bring down a government. It would still have the power to request amendments and vote on constitutional issues.

Responding to pressure for a cut in the cost of the overall political system, the number of senators would be cut from 315 to 100. Instead of being directly elected, they would mainly be mayors and local government representatives with a small number nominated by the president.

The accord will require a two-thirds majority in parliament to change the constitution, which it should get if the agreement with the opposition holds up. It is expected to be brought up for debate in parliament next month.

According to Reuters there is also a debate on electoral reform that is part of the broader reform movement.

I cannot really analyze too much of this from these skeletal details, but a few thoughts do come to mind.  The first is that since Italy is a unitary state (i.e., there are no local governmental units with any kind of policy-making autonomy of the type that we see in federal systems) then there really is no logic to give the second chamber co-equal control over legislation and government formation.   Second, since Italy is a parliamentary system in a unitary state, it makes sense that legislation and government formation would be in the hands of the majority coalition.  At a minimum such a system would allow a) the sentiments of the majority to become law, and b) allow for that majority to own responsibility for the success or failure of those laws.  The better the electoral system represents the interests of the population and the more it is, in fact, a true feedback loop from the citizenry to the parliament, the  better the system can function to address Italy’s policy problems.

Understand, I base the above on a general set of descriptions of the reforms, rather than a detailed report.  Also, nothing has actually passed yet, so this is all hypothetical at this point.  Indeed, it is wholly unclear if the needed votes to actually pass such reforms exist.

Another key observation I would make is this:  this is an example of a country actually deciding to engage in institutional reform as well as an example of politicians (some, at least) being willing to vote for changes that would diminish their power.  These are both things that we in the US think of an impossible and yet, this demonstrates that it can happen (and, indeed, if one studies democracies globally one find that such actions do happen from time to time).

One last point:  the motivation for change should sound familiar to US ears:  the inability of the legislature to craft efficacious policy.

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Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter