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Mostly idle

Marcel Fürstenau / dbNovember 21, 2013

The constituent assembly of Germany's Bundestag took place last month. But as coalition talks drag on and a new government has yet to be sworn in, sessions are, for the most part, on hold until next year.

empty Bundestag plenary hall +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Germans are still waiting for the formation of a new government two months after the federal election on September 22. They may have to patient until Christmas, if not longer. According to a temporary schedule set up by the parliamentary leaders of the four parties that won seats in the Bundestag, lawmakers could re-elect Angela Merkel as chancellor for a third term in on December 17. The condition is that Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) and Social Democrats (SPD) have reached a deal for a grand coalition of Germany's largest political parties by then. In that case, the Greens and the Left Party would form the opposition.

Until then, parliament is restricted in its most important duties, or can't fulfill them at all: supervising the government and passing laws. Both are possible in theory, but in practice, not much has happened since no side can say with absolute certainty what role it will play in the future and what compromises it may have to make when voting.

Special session

That uncertainty is the reason behind the German parliament's current extended idleness. The constituent assembly of the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament, took place on October 22, exactly a month after the national polls. It was a last-minute move: according to the Basic Law, a newly elected parliament must convene within 30 days. Since then, the 631 members of parliament have had little parliamentary work to do.

Delegates pose in front of a sceen reading 'First session of the German Bundestag' ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images)
In waiting since the constituent assembly in OctoberImage: Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images

A special session was called by the Greens Party on November 18 for lawmakers to convene and debate the NSA's eavesdropping programs, which included listening in to Merkel's mobile phone. Apart from remarking on the spying scandal, Merkel took advantage of the plenary session to make a government policy statement concerning the recent EU summit in Vilnius.

Interim solution

Parliament needs more than plenary sessions to ensure its ability to get work done, but the many committees are at least as important as the general body. They are comprised of the individual parties' experts on topics as diverse as finance, health and education. In these committees, the lawmakers usually establish the groundwork for planned legislation. Depending on their affiliation, the experts give delegates recommendations regarding the vote: after all, no delegate has detailed expertise in every single topic.

To ensure at least minimum working ability even under the current circumstances, the CDU and the SPD filed a motion to hold a special session on November 28 to create what is called a joint committee. The committee would deal with deadline issues and formulate necessary proposals.

Norbert Lammert Photo: Michael Kappeler dpa/lbn
Lammert is a member of Merkel's CDUImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Foreign missions

One issue is the upcoming extension of the German Armed Forces' mandate to embark on foreign missions that are limited to the end of the year. Germany's Bundeswehr is a parliamentary army, which means a Bundestag mandate is required to send troops to Afghanistan, the Balkans or anywhere else in the world.

A joint committee will temporarily replace the usual expert panels to conduct parliament's tasks in the absence of a new government, Norbert Lammert, the Bundestag's current president, said. Both CDU and SPD delegates are waiting for the outcome of coalition talks because the expert committees are to mirror the ministries that have yet to be assigned. To date, parliament could have formed several committees - including defense, foreign and European affairs - because they are obligatory, Lammert said. But a petition by the Left Party to form the above and six additional expert panels fell flat: the Greens abstained, and the potential CDU and SPD coalition partners opposed the suggestion.

Not paid "for sitting around"

Left party politician Dietmar Bartsch accused the CDU and SPD of "taking parliament hostage" with their protracted coalition talks. The Bundestag is the sovereign, he argued: "We're not being paid for sitting around."

Lammert, the chamber's president, said the controversial approach was "justifiable and reasonable," while the Greens are skeptical of the interim joint committee solution, branding it as an effort to "sideline parliament."

Regular sessions with the usual three days of debate per week are expected at the earliest in mid-January 2014. The expert committees could be formed in the very first meeting - if, that is, Germany has a new government by that time.