The heart of any parliamentary system of government is the legislature. Germany has a bicameral parliament. The two chambers are the Bundestag (Federal Diet or lower house) and the Bundesrat (Federal Council or upper house). Both chambers can initiate legislation, and most bills must be approved by both chambers, as well as the executive branch, before becoming law. Legislation on issues within the exclusive jurisdiction of the federal government, such as international treaties, does not require Bundesrat approval.
The federal government introduces most legislation; when it does so, the Bundesrat reviews the bill and then passes it on to the Bundestag. If a bill originates in the Bundesrat, it is submitted to the Bundestag through the executive branch. If the Bundestag introduces a bill, it is sent first to the Bundesrat and, if approved there, forwarded to the executive. The Joint Conference Committee resolves any differences over legislation between the two legislative chambers. Once the compromise bill that emerges from the conference committee has been approved by a majority in both chambers and by the cabinet, it is signed into law by the federal president and countersigned by the relevant cabinet minister.
The Bundestag is the principal legislative chamber, roughly analogous to the United States House of Representatives. The Bundestag has grown gradually since its creation, most dramatically with unification and the addition of 144 new representatives from eastern Germany, for a total of 656 deputies in 1990. A further expansion in 1994 increased the number to 672. Elections are held every four years (or earlier if a government falls from power). Bundestag members are the only federal officials directly elected by the public. All candidates must be at least twenty-one years old; there are no term limits.
The most important organizational structures within the Bundestag are parliamentary groups (Fraktionen ; sing., Fraktion ), which are formed by each political party represented in the chamber. The size of a party's Fraktion determines the extent of its representation on legislative committees, the number of committee chairs it can hold, and its representation in executive bodies of the Bundestag. The head of the largest Fraktion is named president of the Bundestag. The Fraktionen , not the members, receive the bulk of government funding for legislative and administrative activities.
The leadership of each Fraktion consists of a parliamentary party leader, several deputy leaders, and an executive committee. The leadership's major responsibilities are to represent the Fraktion , enforce party discipline, and orchestrate the party's parliamentary activities. The members of each Fraktion are distributed among working groups focused on specific policy-related topics such as social policy, economics, and foreign policy. The Fraktion meets once a week to consider legislation before the Bundestag and formulate the party's position on it.
The Bundestag's executive bodies include the Council of Elders and the Presidium. The council consists of the Bundestag leadership, together with the most senior representatives of each Fraktion , with the number of these representatives tied to the strength of the party in the chamber. The council is the coordination hub, determining the daily legislative agenda and assigning committee chairpersons based on party representation. The council also serves as an important forum for interparty negotiations on specific legislation and procedural issues. The Presidium is responsible for the routine administration of the Bundestag, including its clerical and research activities. It consists of the chamber's president and vice presidents (one from each Fraktion ).
Most of the legislative work in the Bundestag is the product of standing committees. Although this is common practice in the United States Congress, it is uncommon in other parliamentary systems, such as the British House of Commons and the French National Assembly. The number of committees approximates the number of federal ministries, and the titles of each are roughly similar (e.g., defense, agriculture, and labor). Between 1987 and 1990, the term of the eleventh Bundestag, there were twenty-one standing committees. The distribution of committee chairs and the membership of each committee reflect the relative strength of the various parties in the chamber. In the eleventh Bundestag, the CDU/CSU chaired eleven committees, the SPD eight, the FDP one, and the environmentalist party, the Greens (Die Grünen), one. Unlike in the United States Congress, where all committees are chaired by members of the majority party, the German system allows members of the opposition party to chair a significant number of standing committees. These committees have either a small staff or no staff at all.
Although most legislation is initiated by the executive branch, the Bundestag considers the legislative function its most important responsibility. The Bundestag concentrates much of its energy on assessing and amending the government's legislative program. The committees play a prominent role in this process. Plenary sessions provide a forum for members to engage in public debate on legislative issues before them, but they tend to be well attended only when significant legislation is being considered. The Bundestag allots each Fraktion a certain amount of time, based on its size, to express its views.
Other responsibilities of the Bundestag include selecting the federal chancellor and exercising oversight of the executive branch on issues of both substantive policy and routine administration. This check on executive power can be employed through binding legislation, public debates on government policy, investigations, and direct questioning of the chancellor or cabinet officials. For example, the Bundestag can conduct a question hour (Fragestunde ), in which a government representative responds to a previously submitted written question from a member. Members can ask related questions during the question hour. The questions can concern anything from a major policy issue to a specific constituent's problem. Use of the question hour has increased markedly over the past forty years, with more than 20,000 questions being posed during the 1987-90 Bundestag term. Understandably, the opposition parties are active in exercising the parliamentary right to scrutinize government actions.
One striking difference when comparing the Bundestag with the United States Congress is the lack of time spent on serving constituents in Germany. In part, that difference results from the fact that only 50 percent of Bundestag deputies are directly elected to represent a specific geographic district; the other half are elected as party representatives. The political parties are thus of great importance in Germany's electoral system, and many voters tend not to see the candidates as autonomous political personalities but rather as creatures of the party. Interestingly, constituent service seems not to be perceived, either by the electorate or by the representatives, as a critical function of the legislator. A practical constraint on the expansion of constituent service is the limited personal staff of Bundestag deputies.
The second legislative chamber, the Bundesrat, is the federal body in which the sixteen Land governments are directly represented. It exemplifies Germany's federalist system of government. Members of the Bundesrat are not popularly elected but are appointed by their respective Land governments. Members tend to be Land government ministers. The Bundesrat has sixty-nine members. The Länder with more than 7 million inhabitants have six seats (Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria, Lower Saxony, and North Rhine-Westphalia). The Länder with populations of between 2 million and 7 million have four seats (Berlin, Brandenburg, Hesse, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Rhineland-Palatinate, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, Schleswig-Holstein, and Thuringia). The least populous Länder , with fewer than 2 million inhabitants, receive three seats each (Bremen, Hamburg, and the Saarland). This system of representation, although designed to reflect Land populations accurately, in fact affords greater representation per inhabitant to the smaller Länder . The presidency of the Bundesrat rotates annually among the Länder . By law, each Land delegation is required to vote as a bloc in accordance with the instructions of the Land government.
Because the Bundesrat is so much smaller than the Bundestag, it does not require the extensive organizational structure of the lower house. The Bundesrat typically schedules plenary sessions once a month for the purpose of voting on legislation prepared in committee. In comparison, the Bundestag conducts about fifty plenary sessions a year. Bundesrat representatives rarely attend committee sessions; instead, they delegate that responsibility to civil servants from their ministries, as allowed for in the Basic Law. The members tend to spend most of their time in their Land capitals, rather than in the federal capital.
The legislative authority of the Bundesrat is subordinate to that of the Bundestag, but the upper house nonetheless plays a vital legislative role. The federal government must present all legislative initiatives first to the Bundesrat; only thereafter can a proposal be passed to the Bundestag. Further, the Bundesrat must approve all legislation affecting policy areas for which the Basic Law grants the Länder concurrent powers and for which the Länder must administer federal regulations. The Bundesrat has increased its legislative responsibilities over time by successfully arguing for a broad, rather than a narrow, interpretation of what constitutes the range of legislation affecting Land interests. In 1949 only 10 percent of all federal laws, namely, those directly affecting the Länder , required Bundesrat approval. In 1993 close to 60 percent of federal legislation required the upper house's assent. The Basic Law also provides the Bundesrat with an absolute veto of such legislation.
The political power of the absolute veto is particularly evident when the opposition party or parties in the Bundestag have a majority in the Bundesrat. When this is the case, the opposition can threaten the government's legislative program. Such a division of authority can complicate the process of governing when the major parties disagree, and, unlike the Bundestag, the Bundesrat cannot be dissolved under any circumstances.
This bicameral system also has advantages. Some observers emphasize that different majorities in the two chambers ensure that all legislation, when approved, has the support of a broad political spectrum--a particularly valuable attribute in the aftermath of unification, when consensus on critical policy decisions is vital. The formal representation of the Länder in the federal government through the upper chamber provides an obvious forum for the coordination of policy between the Länder and the federal government. The need for such coordination, particularly given the specific, crucial needs of the eastern Länder , has become only more important.
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