History of Italy / Politics

The power of the Italian Government to legislate by decree

When it was born, Italy inherited the Sardinian-Piedmontese Constitution, according to which any law needed to be passed by the Parliament and then sanctioned by the King, who had a power of veto.

The practical application of the Constitution was partially different. The King seldom refused to sign into law a bill approved by the Parliament, nor he refused to enact decrees with force of law adopted by the Government. Sometimes the enactment of such decrees had been previously authorized by law, sometimes not. In the latter case, the decree was retroactively confirmed by a successive law.

What was only a constitutional practice was codified by the fascist Government with by a constitutional law attributed to itself the power to enact delegate decrees and emergency decrees. After adopting an emergency decree the Government had a very long time to obtain its conversion into law by the Parliament. If this didn’t happen, which was very unlikely since under the fascist regime the Parliament was a rubber-stamp body, the decree would simply cease to produce its effects, and only for the future.

Anxious to rein in the Government, the 1948 Constitution prohibited the Parliament to deliver blank cheques to the Government, but it did not outlaw delegate decrees altogether. Emergency decree continue to be allowed, too, but they now must be converted into law by the Parliament in sixty days.

The slow pace and inefficiency of the Parliamentary proceedings, however, once again turned decrees into the main legislative tools. In 1996 the Constitutional Court outlawed the practice of “reiterated decrees”, id est emergency decrees which were reenacted by the Government again and again every sixty days until the Parliament surrendered and finally converted the last one into law retroactively confirming the entire series of decrees.

Newly elected President Sergio Mattarella reportedly asked the Government to avoid an excessive use of decrees, prompting the Government to renounce to a planned Emergency Decree reforming the school system; a Bill will be presented to the Parliament instead.

All the Decrees need the signature of the President, who can refuse it. However, in practice he seldom does it and the actual latitude of his veto power is not fully clear. Similarly, an Emergency Decree enacted without any real emergency – as it is nearly always the case – in theory can be challenged in the Constitutional Court; however, in practice the Court will seldom quash a Decree.

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