Italy’s new prime minister, Mario Monti, has one of the least enviable jobs in the entire European Union, and it’s about to get even worse. After Silvio Berlusconi’s sensational resignation last November, the former European Union commissioner was tasked with wrangling control of Italy’s economic debacle and solving the country’s $2.6 trillion debt crisis that threatens to bring down the euro zone and its single currency. Now he’s facing an angry Parliament whose members resent the fact that he just outed their best-kept secret: that they earn far more money in salaries and benefits than any other elected lawmakers in the European Union—even as ordinary Italians are bearing the brunt of the austerity measures now on the table.
Including perks and expenses, the average Italian lawmaker’s gross pay tops $20,700 each month—with the highest earners exceeding $26,000 a month—more than some Italians make in an entire year, according to a survey commissioned by Monti’s new government. Italian legislators earn $2,600 more than French lawmakers, Europe’s second-highest earners, and nearly $5,200 more than their German counterparts earn each month. Their pay is nearly quadruple the government salaries of the Spanish parliamentarians, who earn just $6,000 a month and considerably higher than their British counterparts, who gross $8,400 each month, including perks. Many Italian lawmakers also legally collect income from other sources, including private businesses, consultancies, and legal and medical practices—salaries that are often tax free because of the lawmakers’ parliamentary status. The confirmation of Italy’s excessive government expenditures comes as everyday Italians take multiple hits, from a new property tax on primary residences to a hefty augmentation of fuel prices at the pumps (gas now tops $8 a gallon). Further cuts and the impending liberalization of many of Italy’s job sectors have caused unease among private citizens whose employment can now be easily terminated and whose futures seem increasingly uncertain.
Now it’s up to Monti, who has waived his own salary for the two jobs he currently holds—prime minister and economy minister—to let the air out of Italy’s bloated public sector, which has played such an obvious role in keeping the country dormant and debt-ridden for decades. Lawmakers’ benefit packages are an obvious place to start. It’s an issue that has been hotly debated in Italy for months, starting with the popular Facebook page called “Spider Truman” that reveals secrets from inside Italy’s Parliament. A recent provocative posting summed up the situation: “Anna, 74-year-old retiree, $550 a month; Domenico Scilipoti, 54-year-old parliamentarian, $18,920 a month—This is Italy.”
Monti’s report, a survey he commissioned soon after he became prime minister, confirms that Italian lawmakers travel free by air, rail, road, and sea within Italy, yet they can still file for up to $1,700 in receipt-free travel expenses as part of their monthly earnings. They are each given a tax-free housing allowance to live in Rome—even if they already own private houses in the capital. They are given $5,000 every month in secretarial and research support costs on top of their salaries, even if they use the parliamentary staff or choose not to employ their own staff. They enjoy subsidized dining in a gourmet cafeteria where they eat T-bone steaks and grilled swordfish for just a few dollars per plate, not to mention enjoying the services of hairdressers, barbers, and manicurists. There is even an expensive private restroom and other services in Parliament for Vladimir Luxuria, Italy’s transgender lawmaker who is not welcome in either the men's or ladies' bathrooms in the Parliament building. Police escorts are provided for parliamentarians’ families, even when they are on personal business. Parliamentarians need only serve one term to enjoy the benefit of a full state pension, while ordinary Italians have to work for years to earn their meager private-sector pensions. There are also parliamentary discounts offered by many of Rome’s designer boutiques, and there is a subsidized phone service on offer from Italy’s cellphone providers. The list is virtually endless, from free access to tony beaches and free movie and opera tickets on request.
Monti’s survey also looked at what it considered an abundance of government agencies that need thinning out, including 34 public entities that do not exist in any other country in Europe. Monti’s government will also consider passing legislation to reduce the total number of government officials, both in Parliament in Rome and in regional governments. There are 1,000 legislators in both houses of Parliament for a population of just 60 million, compared with the United States, which has 535 lawmakers for a population of 310 million. But lawmakers will likely not vote for any such self-reduction themselves. “There has been talk of reducing the number of parliamentarians for decades,” says James Walston, a political analyst in Rome. “But then again, turkeys don’t vote for Christmas.”
In fact, a self-inflicted pay cut is likely not going to top the agenda in Italy’s Parliament any time soon. Rather than imposing the obviously necessary cuts, Monti has tasked lawmakers with coming up with their own salary reductions and amendments to their benefits packages, even though most have rebelled against the survey. A spokesman for Italy’s senate told reporters that the survey is “of insufficient quality” pointing to the fact that it “relies on pan-European data without a proper scientific model.”
In the meantime, Italy’s parliamentarians have taken to blogs and Twitter to defend their inflated paychecks. Parliamentarian Alessandra Mussolini, grand-daughter of the late dictator Benito Mussolini, blamed corruption for the backlash against lawmakers. “Because of a few who make themselves rich from politics and under-the-counter money, all of us have to pay,” she blogged. “They want us to suffer more, but if you lowered our wages to 1,000 euros [$1,300] a month people would like to see us taking 500 euros [$650].” Given the dire state of Italy’s economy, even that might be seen by some as too much.