Does Mario Monti Have a Second Act? • The Supreme Court Gets It Right on Immigration

Italy’s technocrat-in-chief needs a popular mandate for deeper reforms

When Mario Monti was appointed — not elected — prime minister of Italy in November, most Italians saw him as a welcome respite from the flamboyant, bankrupt leadership of Silvio Berlusconi. With the economy headed for collapse, technocratic leadership and a break from politics as usual were exactly what they wanted. So they thought.

Now, opinion polls put Monti’s approval rating at slightly above 30 percent, down from more than 70 percent at the start of his tenure. The country’s media are disenchanted. Monti has failed to produce the miracle that Italy was hoping for, offering only painful remedies for years of misgovernment. It turns out that politics matter, and technocrats aren’t much good at politics.

Monti, an academic and former top European Union civil servant, has lived up to his reputation for getting things done. “Super Mario,” as the press called him, quickly appointed a team of fellow policy professionals, announced long-overdue austerity measures including tax increases and cuts in pensions, and proposed significant reform of Italy’s arcane labor laws.

Despite some necessary compromises with unions, the measures have improved the country’s fiscal outlook. The primary budget surplus (excluding debt payments) is on track to exceed 4 percent of gross domestic product next year, according to the International Monetary Fund — enough, at reasonable interest rates, to stabilize the government’s debt burden.

Unfortunately, Monti has inherited an accumulated public debt large enough — at 120 percent of GDP — to overwhelm his efforts to close the gap between current revenue and outlays. With investors’ confidence rattled, the cost of rolling over the debt is becoming prohibitive. If the bond yield — hovering at about 6 percent, up from 4 percent two years ago — stays high enough for long enough, the country will be insolvent.

A little help from Europe could make a big difference. Italy’s banks aren’t as troubled as Spain’s, so the crisis could quickly recede if confidence in Italy’s ability to refinance its public debt is restored. Monti has been urging EU leaders to back a plan that would allow the European Stability Mechanism — the EU’s new bailout facility — to buy Spanish and Italian bonds. European support, though, won’t ease Monti’s political difficulties. He still needs to maintain fiscal discipline, eliminate barriers to business, and make it easier to hire and fire workers. The IMF estimates that further reform in product and labor markets would raise Italy’s medium-term GDP by 6 percent.

There’s only so much a technocratic leadership can achieve. In a democracy, a sustained effort at institutional and economic reform must be underwritten by voters. Politicians must put forward the case for painful measures and win a mandate to make them happen.

In its Arizona ruling, the court restores the supremacy of federal power

“Immigration shapes the destiny of the Nation,” wrote Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in his majority opinion deciding the fate of Arizona’s controversial immigration law. Based on the court’s ruling, that destiny will continue to be shaped in Washington rather than in the 50 state capitals.

Citing “the federal government’s broad, undoubted power over immigration and alien status,” the court affirmed most of a lower court’s ruling that federal immigration law trumps state laws such as Arizona’s. The state’s requirement that immigrants produce identification papers at the request of authorities was struck down. So was the imposition of criminal penalties on illegal immigrants who obtain employment (federal law imposes penalties on employers, not employees). Finally, the law authorized state law enforcement officers to arrest, without a warrant, anyone they had “probable cause” to believe was removable under immigration law. This last provision, Kennedy wrote, “is not the system Congress created.”

The decision is encouraging not just in the details but in its broad strokes. The court’s endorsement of the Supremacy Clause and federal prerogatives is especially welcome given the myriad efforts to undermine long-established uses of federal power.

Equally welcome is the manner of the court’s decision. Instead of a 5-4 decision on habitual partisan lines, Chief Justice John Roberts joined Kennedy and the court’s liberal justices (minus Justice Elena Kagan, who recused herself) in a 5-3 decision that gave added authority to Kennedy’s solid reasoning.

The court did uphold one of the four contested provisions of the Arizona law: It permitted law enforcement officers to check the immigration status of anyone they believe to be in the country illegally. Enforcing such a provision all but requires some level of racial profiling, given the preponderance of Hispanics among Arizona’s illegal alien population. But since the state insisted that profiling wasn’t necessary, and the Obama administration declined to make reliance on profiling grounds for its objection to the law, the court is right to let that part of the statute play out “at this stage.” If the provision produces clear civil rights violations, the question of its constitutionality can be revisited.

The decision will invalidate similarly unconstitutional provisions adopted by other states (Alabama comes quickly to mind). For any still considering such measures, there are many reasons to avoid repeating Arizona’s experience. Its law was a commercial albatross and a political liability. The state spent an estimated $3 million defending it and needlessly antagonized many of its own citizens in the process.

Altogether, the ruling is a cause for celebration. The system worked.

To read Noah Feldman on the health-care ruling and Stephen L. Carter on Ray Bradbury, go to:


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