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Good government obtains when those who are near are made happy, and those who are far off are attracted.
— Confucious, The Confucian Analects
It doesn’t seem fair. The Italians have a lot more fun doing nothing than do we. And, in addition, they have the Pope and former Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi. We have no one like the Pope to take pride in and it’s hard to match Berlusconi. This all came to mind while watching the Italian Parliament try to elect a president and undertake other legislative tasks. Comparisons to the U.S. Congress invited themselves to the viewing.
Like the U.S. Congress, the Italian parliament has proved itself incapable of governing. The most recent election in the United States was in November 2012 whereas the Italian parliament was elected in February 2013. In both countries all legislative parties (like Gaul) are divided into three parts. In the United States the three parts are the Republicans who control the House of Representatives, the Democrats who control the Senate and the Tea Party who more or less control themselves as well as those Republicans with whom they disagree. In Italy the three parts are the center left Democratic Party, the center right People of Liberty party and the Five Star Movement that is led by a comedian, Beppe Grillo.
Some of the leaders of the Italian parties remind one of some of the leaders in Congress. The leader of the center-left party (until a few days ago) was Pier Luigi Bersani whose party has the majority in the lower house but not in the Senate and, is, therefore, unable to do anything without the help of one of the other two parties. He is described in the New York Times as being a “somewhat gloomy” individual, a description that could apply equally well to Senator Mitch McConnell, the dour minority leader in the U.S. Senate. Mr. Grillo, leader of the Five Star Party, is an acknowledged comedian, not unlike any number of the members of the U.S. Congress. The Five Star party received 25 per cent of the February vote entitling its members to 163 of the 945 seats in the parliament. Mr. Grillo showed his sense of humor by causing his party to express its disapproval of the parliament’s failure to appoint committees by conducting a sit in. The only problem was they sat in the very chairs in parliament that they were elected to sit in. At the end of the day’s session they declined to go home and stayed in their seats until midnight reading assorted legal texts. No one much cared.
The U.S. Congress has its share of clowns. One of the biggest is Georgia’s Paul Broun, a physician who sits on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. His words belie his education and make a mockery of the committee on which he sits. In a speech at Liberty Baptist Church in Hartwell, Ga. he reported that: “All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. And it’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior” He may not be funny but he’s definitely a clown.
Last, but not least, among elected characters, is Sylvia Berlusconi whose closest Congressional counterpart might be former New York Congressman, Anthony Weiner. Mr. Weiner sent pictures of his crotch to assorted women he found on the internet. It cost him his seat but not his ambition. He hopes to be New York City’s next mayor. By Italian standards Mr. Weiner’s conduct is fairly tame. By contrast, while Mr. Berlusconi was premier the world’s newspapers were filled with pictures of comely young women who graced the parties hosted by Mr. Berlusconi and expressed their gratitude by giving him party favors of the sexual kind. He, too, ultimately lost his job as a result.
Both the U.S. Congress and the Italian Parliament are incapable of governing. Congress takes advantage of procedural tricks to block legislation, the appointment of judges, cabinet officers, heads of regulatory commissions and virtually all legislation. Defining majority to mean 60% enables Congress to avoid its constitutionally imposed duties. The Italians model themselves after the U.S. Congress.
In February 2012 they held an election for Parliament in which no party got a clear majority. Thereafter the three parties refused to form alliances with the result that no parliamentary committees were set up and it took more than two months and six ballots for the parliamentarians to agree on a new president. (On April 20, 2012 the deadlock was broken and the 87-year old Girogio Napolitano was elected to a second term, the first Italian president to ever be elected to two terms.)
Commenting on Mr. Napolitano’s re-election, Antonio Polito, a political commentator said, "Our system is no longer able to produce a stable government. The parliamentary system is broken, and it has not been able to fix itself.” An Italian woman commented: “I am sick and tired of Parliament ignoring the will of the people because of economic reasoning.” Neither of those commentators was speaking of the U.S. Congress. They could have been. As I said at the outset, the Italians are lucky. They have the Pope and Berlusconi. We have no consolation prizes.