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Reforming German Federalism

German lawmakers are considering a major revamp of the country's federal system that could give the states more legislative power, but would make it harder for them to block federal issues.


Germany's Bundesrat represents the country's 16 federal states.

German parliamentarians on Tuesday agreed to launch the largest reform of German federalism in the country's postwar history. The decision could lead to major changes to the constitution by early 2005.

The parliamentary group leaders agreed that a commission would begin work in November --pending parliamentary approval -- to refashion the country's federal system. The commission will be entrusted for one year with devising proposals to reallocate responsibilities between the federal government and the states and define their areas of competence more precisely.

"I have the feeling that all participants really want it and are in favor of changes," Social Democratic Party (SPD) parliamentary group leader Franz Müntefering told reporters after the meeting in his office. Müntefering, who was the initiator of the commission, said the body will be charged with figuring out how to improve the efficiency of law-making.

Germany's political parties are all more or less in favor of fine-tuning the current federal system, which allows the states to block legislation passed by the lower house of parliament the Bundestag. Difficult pieces of legislation, such as the current reform of the healthcare system, often has to be hammered out with the Bundesrat, which represents the 16 states, before it can become law. State governments, which are currently able to pass laws concerning little more than the police and the press, have also been pushing for the right to have state legislatures make more decisions on regional matters.

Unequal footing

The commission will be made up of 16 members of the Bundestag and 16 from the Bundesrat. The Green Party and the Free Democratic Party failed to prevail with their suggestion that state parliaments, local authorities and the federal government all receive equal say on the commission. Instead they will be considered guests and receive a total 13 seats that will allow them to speak and make motions, but they will not have equal voting rights.

Green Party parliamentary leader Krista Sager feared that since only Bundestag and Bundesrat members would have full rights in the commission, the body could fail to think "beyond the current structures of power" and miss an opportunity.

In the past numerous attempts to refashion the relationship between the federal government and the states have failed to garner more legislative power. At the moment proposals to lower the number of states by fusing neighbors, such as Berlin and Brandenburg or Saarland and Rhineland-Palatinate, are not being discussed.

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