The Cortes is the most powerful governmental institution of the state. It is made up of a lower house, the Congress of Deputies, and an upper chamber, the Senate. The Congress of Deputies, the stronger of the two bodies, may consist of between 300 and 400 members--although electoral laws have set the norm at 350 deputies--elected by proportional representation every four years, unless parliament is dissolved earlier by the head of state. The Senate is composed of 208 directly elected members and 49 regional representatives, also chosen every four years.
The preponderance of legislative authority lies with the Congress of Deputies. Either house may initiate legislation, but the lower house can override a Senate veto by a vote of a simple majority of its members. Thus, if a political party has a solid majority in the Congress of Deputies, a Senate veto has little effect. The predominance of the lower house is also evidenced by the fact that the president of the Congress presides when the two chambers are meeting jointly.
The Congress of Deputies also has the power to ratify or to reject decree laws adopted by the government, and its authorization is required for a declaration of a state of exception and for the extension of a state of alarm. It is also the body that is responsible, if necessary, for accusing the prime minister or his ministers of treason or of crimes against the state. The prime minister must receive a vote of investiture from the Congress of Deputies before being formally sworn into office by the king. A prime minister may request a vote of confidence from the Congress of Deputies at any time. If he fails to achieve this, both houses of parliament are dissolved, and new elections are called. Furthermore, the Congress of Deputies has potentially significant power over the executive because it may vote the prime minister out of office by adopting a motion of censure by absolute majority.
The primary function of the Senate is territorial representation. Its only exclusive power concerns the autonomous communities. If a community fails to fulfill its legal and its constitutional obligations, or acts contrary to the general interests of Spain, the government, with the approval of an overall majority of the Senate, may adopt measures to enforce the community's compliance with its obligations.
Although each chamber of the Cortes carries out certain duties separately, many important functions are exercised by both houses, in which case they meet as the General Cortes (Cortes Generales). In this capacity, they elaborate laws proposed by the government, by the Congress of Deputies, by the Senate, by any autonomous community, or through popular initiative. They also approve, and they may amend, state budgets proposed by the executive. They furthermore may direct interpellations and questions to the government and to individual ministers.
Each chamber of the Cortes meets in separate premises in Madrid, and each holds two regular annual sessions--from September to December and from February to June. They may meet in extraordinary session to attend to a specific matter at the request of the government, or at the request of the absolute majority of the members of either chamber.
All Spaniards "having full use of their political rights" may be candidates for election to the Cortes, except for the following: members of the Constitutional Court, high-ranking civil servants, practicing judges and public prosecutors, the ombudsman, professional military personnel, members of the police and security forces who are in active service, and members of electoral commissions. Members of the Cortes may not be members of both chambers at the same time, nor may members of the Congress of Deputies have a seat in both the Congress and a regional assembly. Senators are not barred from occupying a seat in a regional assembly. Members of the Cortes are required to disclose their income and their assets following election. They are expected to attend plenary sessions of the chamber and of the committees on which they serve. Senators who consistently fail to attend such meetings are liable to incur a financial penalty.
Along with these obligations, parliamentarians enjoy certain rights and privileges. They may not be prosecuted for verbal opinions expressed in the exercise of their duties. While in office, they may be arrested only if caught in the actual act of committing a crime. Even in this case, they cannot be charged or prosecuted without prior consent of the Cortes. They are guaranteed a fixed salary and social security payments, along with allowances for extra expenses incurred in the line of duty. Members of the Cortes exercise their functions independently, and they are not obliged to follow the dictates of their parties' leaderships in casting their votes.
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