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The Italian Senate Under Reform: From Disguised Unicameralism to a True Regional Second Chamber?

Antonia Baraggia, University of Milan

After the recent attempts to reform the Irish and the Canadian Senates, the Italian second chamber is also undergoing a process of profound transformation.

The issue of reforming the Italian second chamber is not a recent development. The Italian Senate has been the subject of debate since the Constitutional Assembly gathered to design the Italian Constitution, which came into force in 1948. The solution adopted by the Founding Fathers was controversial insofar as it departed from the conventional model of bicameralism since it was more of a “disguised” unicameralism than a true bicameralism.

Italian bicameralism is generally known as “perfect bicameralism”, since the second chamber (the Senate) has exactly the same powers and functions of the first chamber (Chamber of Deputies), both in the legislative process and in the relationship with the government (e.g. the vote of confidence). Moreover, the Italian Senate represents the same electorate of the first chamber. Even though originally it had been conceived of as the chamber representative of the regions, as in all federal/regional states, it has not in reality assumed these functions, but has rather represented the whole citizenry (despite the fact that the electoral system of the Senate differs from that one of the first chamber).

In light of this kind of undifferentiated bicameralism, what Bentham affirmed regarding second chambers  is certainly true for the Italian case: if a second chamber offers nothing different from the first, then it is redundant and every cost incurred in its establishment and maintenance is wasted.

Facing the emergence of the limits of a perfect bicameralism, there have been several attempts to reform the Italian Senate, most notably in 1997 with the D’Alema Committe, in 2005 with the Center-Right Reform, and in 2007 with the Violante Project. All of these efforts were intended to transform the Second chamber into a “federal” one, representative of the regional character of the country, but until now none of these efforts have succeeded.

A new era of constitutional reform seemed to have been inaugurated with the appointment of the Commission for Constitutional Reform, a technical commission appointed by President Napolitano in June 2013 and composed mostly of prominent professors of constitutional law. The Commission made several proposals in order to achieve what looked inevitable: the abandonment of perfect bicameralism.

The Commission proposed various solutions: the adoption of a monocameral system, following the example of Sweden, Portugal and Greece in Europe, or the adoption of a differentiated bicameralism, transforming the Second chamber into a real regional chamber, the members of which would be representative – in different ways – of the local autonomies.

The latter model could be realized, according the Commission’s proposal, in a few different ways: Senators could be elected directly by the citizens; indirectly appointed by the regional Councils (from amongst their members or external candidates); or in a mixed way, combining the election of members by regional Councils and by municipalities.

The Commission’s proposals received little attention, however, because of the sudden fall of Letta’s government.

Nonetheless, the advent of the Renzi government, the prominent feature of which was a strong agenda of constitutional interventions, pushed constitutional reforms to the fore. On April 8, 2014, the Prime Minister proposed a new legislative draft (n. 1429), entitled “Provisions for exceeding the equal bicameralism, reducing the number of parliamentary members, the containment of the costs of institutions, the abolition of the CNEL and the revision of Title V of Part II of the Constitution.”

This draft has been discussed by the Committee on Constitutional Affairs of the Senate, which proposed some amendments. It is under parliamentary debate. However, it is interesting to sketch the direction this proposal suggests for Italian bicameralism.

On the Senate’s composition, the proposal presents a mixed model: the Senate would be composed partially of the Presidents of Regions and the mayors of the regions seats, and partially by two members for each Region elected by the Regional Council from amongst their components and by two mayors elected by a board made up of all the mayors of the Region. There would be no differentiation between the Regions. Each of them, regardless of their size and population, would have the same number of representatives.

Moreover, the President of the Republic would be authorized to appoint twenty-one citizens who have honored the country for great merit in the social, scientific, artistic, and literary fields.

On the powers of the Senate, the bill also breaks with the model of perfect bicameralism. In bill n. 1429, the relation of confidence binds the Chamber of Deputies and the government, while the Senate is excluded from this relationship.

Moreover, the role of the Senate would be reduced in the legislative process as well. Only a few types of laws would have to be approved by the Senate, namely constitutional bills and constitutional amendments.

The Senate would be able to propose amendments on other kind of bills, however. But in these cases the bill would pass only if the Chamber of Deputies were to re-approve the bill by an absolute majority.

The provisions of the bill, which are only briefly summarized here, have been hotly debated by legal scholars and politicians. In particular, the major critiques concern the Senate’s proposed composition: the heterogeneity of its members could prevent the formation of a real territorial representativeness, in favor of party allegiance.

Moreover, the presence of twenty-one senators appointed by the President and completely unconnected to territorial representativeness is highly controversial (on this issue it is not surprisingly that recently the Committee on Constitutional Affairs proposed to abolish this presidential appointment power, or to diminish the power by reducing the number of presidential appointments to five).

Regarding the Senate’s composition, last week on July 10th the Committee passed an amendment proposing several changes to bill n. 1429: the Senators would be elected by the Regional Councils from amongst their members and amongst the mayors of the municipalities of the region (one for each region). The approved amendment also introduces a proportional criterion in the allocation of seats, on the basis of the region population (following the example of the German Bundesrat).

Therefore, the Senate would be composed by ninety-five elective members (sixty-four regional councilors and twenty-one mayors) and by five members appointed by the President. These provisions clearly create a quite different Senate membership with respect to the Government proposal.

The Committee has just concluded his work and now the bill has to be discussed and voted twice by both the Chambers, according to the reinforced procedure established by Article 138 of the Constitution.

The parliamentary debate is therefore only at its first stage, and it is high pitched, as the different solutions at stake testify. For all these reasons it is premature to say which model of bicameralism will prevail and whether the wind of reform will keep blowing on the Italian Senate.

However, the hope is that the Italian Senate could be reformed to reflect a more regional perspective, representing what Jeremy Waldron has recently defined the key to bicameralism: difference.

Suggested Citation: Antonia Baraggia, The Italian Senate Under Reform: From Disguised Unicameralism to a True Regional Second Chamber?, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, July 16, 2014, available at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2014/07/the-italian-senate-under-reform-from-disguised-unicameralism-to-a-true-regional-second-chamber

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Published on July 16, 2014
Author:          Filed under: Analysis
 

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