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Government shutdown, Italian style

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Americans aren’t the only ones talking about a government shutdown this week.

Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta survived a vote of confidence in parliament Wednesday after the faction of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi turned against Berlusconi and decided to support Letta.

Washington's shutdown continues, but the standoffs here and in Rome bear a number of similarities.

Much like President Obama and Senate Democrats, Berlusconi sought to take the country — and even his own party — down a path they did not want to go.

Americans wanted some problems addressed with their health care system, but they never envisioned a behemoth government bureaucracy erected to address them.

And Obama and congressional Democrats never even considered changes to the Affordable Care Act, even though it is opposed by 53 percent of Americans and did not appear ready for prime time on the day the exchanges were to open.

It’s not even popular among labor unions, whose health plans could face new taxes and no new subsidies.

But Obama considers Obamacare the centerpiece of his domestic “legacy,” his best hope to be immortalized alongside big-government Democratic heroes such as FDR and LBJ. And he cannot let it go.

The argument over big government is long over in Italy, of course, and serious reform has not entered the national conversation even as the country has lurched from eurocrisis to eurocrisis.

Berlusconi also has a legacy. His promotes the lavish benefits that come with being an Italian politician — free travel within the country, heavily subsidized gourmet meals in the parliamentary cafeteria, the highest pay for lawmakers in all of Europe.

But Berlusconi is in trouble now. He may be ousted from the Senate as early as this week after the Italian Supreme Court upheld his conviction for tax fraud this summer.

Thus, he moved against Letta, ordering five deputies to resign in protest over his potential ouster. He then urged the vote of confidence.

When some of his most loyal allies abandoned him and said they would support Letta, he relented and, in fact, voted for Letta himself.

Both Berlusconi and Obama are fighting for their legacies – for the continuation not just of policies but of theories of governance.

They won’t compromise because they can’t. Their egos, their hunt for glory, simply won’t let them.

Matthew Melchiorre is the 2012-2013 Warren T. Brookes Journalism fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He is the primary author of "The unintended consequences of Italy's labour laws: How extensive labour regulation distorts the Italian economy." (Economic Affairs, June 2013)
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