Dolce Far Niente
Reform Triumph, Italian Style

All over the web, news services are hailing Italian PM Matteo Renzi’s newest reform victory. In a piece that bears the jubilant headline, “Italy’s Senate Votes to Diminish Power in Boost for Renzi” the New York Times reports that:

The Italian Senate voted on Tuesday to curtail its powers in a victory for Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who has overcome determined opposition to push through the reform that he says will make the country more governable.

Renzi has attached considerable political capital to the bill, which looks to reduce the number of senators by two-thirds, strip the chamber of its ability to bring down a government and sharply limit its scope to block legislation […]

Most opposition parties abandoned the 320-seat chamber ahead of the vote, which Renzi’s coalition won by 178 to 17.

All very dramatic stuff to be sure. Looks like the Italians are finally getting their government shipshape, just like the Davos crowd and the Germans wanted them to.

Not quite:

Because it involves a change to the constitution, the reform will have to return to the Senate for another vote next year and will also have to pass twice through the lower house, giving its opponents ample opportunity to ambush the package.

Quick, what’s the Italian for, “are you kidding me?” And even if it does make it through these other stages and passes, the reform will go through the implementation process, which will doubtless water things down further. And here’s the real kicker: This is all over a technical governmental reform bill (shifting power from the Senate to the lower chamber, where Renzi has a surer hand), which is designed to make it easier, in time, for Renzi to pass other, more targeted reform measures that will actually declutter the regulatory sphere (which pesky bureaucrats oversee) and, it’s hoped, boost the economy. Got all that? Whew.

This is a very, very old game. As Walter Russell Mead noted in these pages in August:

Italian reform laws tend to be thought through poorly and drafted poorly, and they are then amended in a complicated legislative process that usually both weakens the intent of the law and complicates its execution. All of that provides plenty of grounds for the bureaucrats to “interpret” what’s left into something bland and ineffective.[..]

Italy has a long history of using that strategy. The Goths conquered Rome and did a lot of damage—but they didn’t change Italy much. German emperors strutted through the halls of Italy’s palaces and issued decrees to both princes and popes—and Italy kept on being Italian all the same. The idealists of the Risorgimento who fought for Italian unification in the 19th century dreamed that a united Italy would become a modern great power, but what they got instead was more of the same. Mussolini tried to make Italy organized, disciplined, and modern, but his efforts made little difference in the end. The Italian Communist Party became steadily more Italian and less Communist over time; the mani pulitescandal was supposed to provoke a wholesale shake-up of the Italian political class. The scandal ended, and with a few minor changes the political system rolls on.

And, as this story indicates, so it rolls on today.

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