Letta has set an 18-month deadline for the reform, which will be framed by a panel of 40 parliamentarians helped by 35 'wise men'. Reforms will include a new electoral law, cutting the number of MPs and stripping the Senate of its equal status to the Lower House. Law-making is slower in Italy than other countries because the Senate has the same powers as the House. The current electoral law has been widely criticised because it does not let voters pick their MPs and tends to produce different majorities in the two houses, as happened in February's general election which led to two months of deadlock. President Giorgio Napolitano was re-elected to solve the impasse and shepherded into existence a coalition between ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right People of Freedom (PdL) party and Letta's own Democratic Party (PD), traditional enemies.
Announcing the reform bill, Constitutional Reform Minister Gaetano Quagliariello said the path was clear for parliament to approve it by the end of October 2014. "The bill lays out the playing field and sets the duration of the match," he told reporters.
The 40 members of the Italian parliament's two Constitutional affairs committees will hammer out the reforms after consulting the 35 'wise men', who are mainly academic experts on the Constitution and jurists and represent both sides of the political spectrum. The reform panel of 20 members of the Lower House and 20 Senators will be set up in October this year when the experts' recommendations have been received, Quagliariello said.
"By that time, the committee of experts that has been appointed today will have finished its work and presented its report to the government," he said.
Reforms to make the House the sole legislative body, cut the number of MPs and change an electoral law dubbed a 'Pig's Sty' by its creator in 2006 have almost universal backing. But another mooted reform, changing the way the Italian president is elected, is more controversial. Currently the head of State is voted in by parliament. There is a groundswell on the right for changing this to let the Italian people choose him, as in France and the United States, but this is opposed by some on the left, despite Letta saying earlier this week he was "open" to it. The PD is divided over whether having a president elected by the people is a good idea, with some fearing a charismatic leader like Berlusconi or anti-establishment comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo, who scored heavily in the general election but is boycotting the old parties, might ride roughshod over parliament. Any changes to the Constitution require a two-thirds majority in both chambers. If they do not get this, they are subject to a popular referendum, which can abrogate the reform. Quagliariello said the new reforms would in any case be put to a referendum. Letta has said he will resign if the reforms are not framed within the 18-month limit he has set. Previous attempts at sweeping institutional reform have failed, most notably a two-year Bicameral convention which was scuppered by Berlusconi. The government on Thursday put the reform bill on a fast track. Some, like employers' body Confindustria, think the government has its priorities wrong. Confindustria head Giorgio Squinzi earlier this week said the PD and PdL should stop "chattering" over such issues and instead get cracking on reviving an economy that is in its longest recession for 20 years, with unemployment at record highs, especially among the young. Letta replied that growth and jobs were just as high on the government agenda, as shown by Wednesday's scheduling of a four-way European jobs summit in Rome June 14 bringing together ministers from Germany, France, Spain and Italy.