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Parliament and parties

Hanno Schiffer / Daphne Antachopoulos (jen)
February 11, 2009

"To the German people," reads the inscription over the main door of the Reichstag, Germany’s parliament building. Together with the upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat, the parliament passes the country's laws.

The dome of the Reichstag in Berlin
The Reichstag building was reopened after a restoration in 1999Image: picture-alliance / dpa/dpaweb

In addition to debating and passing new laws, the Bundestag - Germany's lower house of parliament - elects the German chancellor and controls the government's agenda. It also decides on the annual budget.

Every four years, Germans elect some 600 members of parliament.

Where the work gets done

The MPs of a given party constitute what is known as a parliamentary party. Depending on the strength of the parliamentary party, the members sign on to permanent and temporary committees. That’s where the actual work of governing gets done - especially in the caucuses that create laws, and issue petitions and requests.

German parliamentarians vote on the financial bailout package in 2008
Voting and discussion in the BundestagImage: AP

The president of the Bundestag presides over the lower house. He or she is the third-highest ranking person in German government, after the German president and the president of the Bundesrat (the upper house of parliament.) The Bundesrat president even officially ranks above the Geman chancellor.

Role of the upper house

The president of the Bundestag comes from the strongest parliamentary party. He or she represents the parliament, leads sessions and makes sure that the parliamentary rights are vouchsafed.

In contrast, the Bundesrat represents the 16 German states in government. It is the states' representative in the legislative process. The Bundesrat is made up of the 16 state governors, and state ministers. A state’s representation in the Bundesrat is dependent upon its population. Small states, such as Bremen, might have three representatives, while a large state like Bavaria has six.

New laws have to go through many phases before they are can take effect in Germany. First, the Bundestag, the Bundesrat or the federal government proposes a law. Then the text is discussed and written in committees.

Different kinds of statutes

When it comes to voting, each representative is expected to vote only according to his or her own conscience. But in fact, votes often fall neatly along party lines, following closely the party's political values and also showing a united front to the public. It is known as “party discipline” - not to be confused with party coercion, which is not allowed since it would de facto take away the parliamentarians' decision-making power.

After lawmakers vote in favor of a proposal in the Bundestag, it moves on to the Bundesrat. The legal structure differentiates between statutes that do not require assent, and those that do.

Bundesrat building
The Bundesrat represents German statesImage: AP

Laws that need to be put into place by the states - which require their financial involvement or the alteration of the state’s constitution - need to be agreed by the states. If the Bundesrat votes such a law down, then the law is sent to what is known as an arbitration committee. The committee is made up of 16 representatives from the Bundestag and the Bundesrat together. They work out a compromise, and the Bundestag must once more vote on this result. But the committee can also suggest that the law get passed as-is, in which case the Bundesrat is obliged to agree.

Then there are laws that don't require assent. If the Bundesrat disapproves of the law, then the Bundestag can overturn it with a majority of votes. In that case, certain ministers, the German chancellor, and the President of the Republic need to sign the law when it is completed.

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