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Blocked bills

Bernd Gräßler / bkFebruary 28, 2013

As her second term comes to an end, things are getting uncomfortable for Angela Merkel. The opposition wants to dictate the political agenda with its majority in the upper house, and is looking to block new laws.

Wooden gavel and books on wooden table,on brown background © Africa Studio #46546734
Image: Africa Studio - Fotolia.com

"We can't let the Bundesrat carry on alone," Chancellor Angela Merkel was quoted as saying this week, according to an unnamed source close to her. She was referring to the German government's upcoming initiative to have the far-right National Democratic Party banned by the Constitutional Court. The Bundesrat, the upper house of the German parliament, had set out its own initiative to do just that two months ago.

Now, after some lengthy hesitation, the chancellor has opted to follow suit, on the grounds that the issue is too important to be left to the Bundesrat, where the opposition commands a majority. Otherwise, the reasoning goes, it might look as though the government is not really interested in what could be a decisive measure against right-wing extremism.

German Bundesrat Foto: Maja Hitij/dapd
The SPD and the Greens hold sway in Germany's upper house of parliamentImage: dapd

The Bundesrat is becoming a troubling problem for Merkel. Her difficulties began in 2010, when Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its coalition partner the Free Democratic Party (FDP) lost several regional elections and along with them its majority in the upper house, which is made up of the governments of Germany's 16 states. In the Bundesrat, state government representatives can re-evaluate and overturn laws passed in the Bundestag, the German parliament's lower house, if the laws affect the states.

Total blockade

Merkel's government has been forced into compromises with the opposition and those compromises have often only come after drawn-out talks in the parliament's bicameral negotiating committee. Occasionally, the government has attempted to use legal loopholes to shut the Bundesrat out of the legislative process, by declaring certain laws as "not subject to approval." But ever since the Lower Saxony election in January, that's no longer possible either. Now states governed by the Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens, and the socialist Left party account for 36 of the 69 votes in the Bundesrat.

With that majority under its belt, the opposition has the right to either stop or renegotiate all government bills, without exception. The Bundesrat can also let the bills rot until the end of the legislative period. That means that most laws are now dependent on the approval of the opposition - which the government can rarely count on.

German Chancellor Helmut Kohl receives a phone call in Bonn Parliament Thursday, March 5, 1998. Kohl rejects suggestions that he call a vote of confidence to prove he can still run Germany after two stunning opposition triumphs. Within five working days, the up-and-coming Social Democrats win a huge state election, giving momentum to Kohl's challenger Gerhard Schroeder, and engineer Kohl's biggest legislative defeat in 16 years in power. (AP PHOTO/Hermann J. Knippertz)
The SPD successfully blocked Kohl's agenda ahead of the 1998 electionImage: AP

It is true that the Bundesrat is not always so slavish about party politics. Often, the state premiers make decisions according to their own interests, not those of their party headquarters in Berlin. But now, with a general election looming in September, that is hardly likely.

It's a tactic the CDU has suffered before: ahead of the 1998 election, then-SPD chairman Oskar Lafontaine organized a similar legislative Bundesrat blockade with the help of Social Democrat-Green governments, which later contributed to the center-left's victory over then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

Pushing the government

But the Bundesrat is not limited to imposing blockades. It also has the right to start its own legislative initiatives, and in the next few months, it intends to prepare the ground for another SPD-Green turn in German politics. It wants to introduce initiatives like a minimum wage, tax equality for gay couples, and the right to dual citizenship for all children born to foreign parents in Germany.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel listens as Peer Steinbrueck gives a speech in the Bundestag on November 21, 2012 Photo: JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images
Steinbrück aims to push Merkel out of the picture in SeptemberImage: Getty Images

The SPD and the Greens also want a law that allows states to withdraw banking licenses from banks that convicted of tax fraud. They are also demanding the government stops its so-called "stay-at-home" parenting credit, which is to be paid to parents who don't use state-subsidized childcare. "We will push the government ahead," opposition politicians have said.

The Bundesrat is rarely the scene of eye-catching heated political duals, and even applause is frowned upon. And the Bundestag, still in Merkel's hands, has the right to block the Bundesrat's bills. But opposition members are determined to show the electorate they mean business and that the bills they proposes could become reality if they receive the most votes in the poll on September 22.

One thing is already certain: if the SPD and the Greens do win the election, the new center-left government under Social Democrat Peer Steinbrück can look forward to at least a year of completely unblocked legislating. The earliest that an SPD-Green coalition government could lose its Bundesrat majority would be the Brandenburg election in autumn 2014.