It's been an uncomfortable summer for Italy's politicians. It was bad enough that many of them had to postpone their vacations to try to calm a skittish bond market with a $70 billion austerity plan. Worse, the markets continued to buck and kick, forcing the government to propose ever more controversial cuts and taxes. And on top of all that, somebody leaked the menu from the Senate restaurant.
Suddenly, on the nation's front pages, deep cuts in government spending were juxtaposed with taxpayer-subsidized meals served on white tablecloths by men in livery: risotto with turbot and zucchini flowers for $4.70; grilled swordfish at $4.99; a choice of dessert, $3.45. The cut-rate prices infuriated a public already fed up with the lavish perks and privileges enjoyed by its ruling elite. "In this time of crisis, when we are asking sacrifices of Italian citizens, politicians need to exhibit a bit of sobriety," says Carlo Monai, the opposition parliamentarian who admitted to leaking the menu.
Italy's billionaire Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi gets plenty of flak for his opulent lifestyle (not to mention allegations of corruption), but he's hardly the only politician who enjoys the good life and he at least pays for some of his luxuries with his own money. Now many Italian citizens are looking more closely at other lawmakers and asking why, at a time of economic crisis, they are so lavishly subsidizing an entire class of politicians, known collectively as La Casta (the Caste). The perks irked nobody when Parliament was filled with admirable politicians, says a former parliamentary assistant who blogs anonymously under the name Spider Truman. But now, he tells TIME in an e-mail, "Parliament is full of parasites, illiterates, turncoats, prostitutes, without any principle or goal other than personal enrichment."
Inside the Parliament buildings in downtown Rome, politicians have access to banks, tobacco shops, bars and restaurants. Each month, every member of Parliament (there are 630, and 321 Senators) receives a posttax salary of roughly $7,700, plus a $5,600 living allowance and $5,600 for expenses. They travel free on the country's planes, trains and toll roads. They can attend premier soccer games without paying. Many are provided with a car and chauffeur. Parliamentary sessions usually begin on Tuesday afternoon and wrap up by Thursday morning. Members aren't required to quit their day jobs.
But what enrages critics most of all is the fact that politicians receive generous pensions and benefits for decades after retirement, even if they've only served for a short time. Marco Perduca, a Senator who has been critical of parliamentary perks, concedes that it's a travesty that a one-term parliamentarian is entitled to a pension "for which other people would have had to work for 40 years."
The public outcry triggered by the lavish menu and harsh austerity packages has prompted some changes. The president of the Senate has pledged to bring prices in the restaurant in line with costs. Both houses have promised to trim expenses and salaries. But as lawmakers voted in mid-September on a new package of austerity measures, including deep spending cuts and additional taxes, their own sacrifices seemed insubstantial. The Caste, it seems, is unwilling to give up la dolce vita.