Political glossary

Amendments (Änderungsanträge)

Amendments to bills which have the support of at least 5% of members can be tabled by individual MPs or a parliamentary group.

Basic Law (Grundgesetz)

The Basic Law is the constitution of the Federal Republic, which came into force in May 1949. Any changes in the Basic law require a two thirds majority in both the Bundestag and Bundesrat.  Some articles –  including the fundamental participation of the federal states in legislation, Article 1 guaranteeing human dignity and Article 20 on the principles of democracy, the rule of law and the welfare state – cannot be changed.

Under the basic law the constitutional organs of state (Verfassungsorgane) are:  the Federal President, the Bundestag, the Bundesrat, the Federal Government, the Federal Assembly, the Joint Committee and the Federal Constitutional Court.  

Bills 

Legislative initiatives can come from the government, from within the Bundestag or from the Bundesrat. 

If the government introduces a law, the Chancellor must first send the bill to the Bundesrat, which then has six weeks to deliver its comments. The bill then goes to the Bundestag with the Bundesrat’s comments, when it will go through its three readings (see below). One exception to this procedure is the draft Budget Act, which is given to the Bundesrat and the Bundestag at the same time.

When legislative initiatives are introduced by the Bundesrat, the bill goes first to the government, which attaches its comments to it within six weeks, and then forwards it to the Bundestag.

Bills introduced from the floor of the Bundestag do not have to be submitted first to the Bundesrat (and so sometimes the government arranges for urgent bills to be introduced by its parliamentary group in the Bundestag).

Once the bill reaches the Bundestag, it is discussed three times (three readings) by the Bundestag at plenary sit­tings. 

The first reading concerns basic principles and the main aim is to designate one or several committees which will consider the bill and prepare it for its second reading. This is done on the basis of the recommendations made by the Council of Elders.  If several committees are designated, one committee is then given overall responsibility and is responsible for the bill’s passage through Parliament. The other committees are asked for their opinions on the bill. 

The detailed work on the  legislation takes place at committee stage.   In parallel to the work done by the committees, the parliamentary groups form working groups, in which they examine the issues concerned and define their own positions.

The second reading of the bill is then held in the plenary, when amendments are proposed. Any member of the Bundestag can table motions for amendments, which are then dealt with immediately in the plenary.

After this, the third reading and the final vote takes place. Motions for amendments can no longer be tabled by individual members – only  one of the parliamentary groups or five percent of members can table amendments at this stage. 

Bills affecting the interests of the states require the explicit consent of the Bundesrat. In the case of other bills, the Bundesrat can lodge an objec­tion.    

If the Bundestag and Bundesrat cannot agree on a bill, they can refer the matter to the Mediation Committee consisting of 16 representatives each from the Bundestag and Bundesrat.  Any compromise reached in the Committee is then returned to the Bundestag and then to the Bundesrat before the new act can come into force.   If no agreement is reached In the case of a bill requiring the consent of the Bundesrat, the bill falls. In cases where the Bundesrat only has the right of objection, however, the Bundestag can overrule its objection and pass the law.

There is a graphic on page 8 of ‘Facts: The Bundestag at a glance’ which shows the legislative process.

Bundesrat 

The Bundesrat is made up of representatives of the 16 federal states (the Länder).  Each state has between 3 and 6 representatives in the Bundesrat, depending on the population size in the state, and there are 69 members.   Members of the Bundesrat are appointed by the state governments.

There is a new Bundesrat President  and Presidium (the President and two Vice-Presidents) appointed every year on a rotational basis.  The President and Vice-Presidents  are  Minister Presidents of states, and there is a fixed sequence of appointments, always beginning with the head of government in the most populous state.  The President chairs the Bundesrat’s plenary sessions, and represents the Bundesrat at official appointments in Germany and abroad. 

Bundestag

The Bundestag is directly elected every four years, according to the constitution which states that “All state authority is derived from the peo­ple”.

The Federal Republic has 299 constituencies. At elections, voters have two votes: they elect their constituency MP with the first vote, and the candi­date who wins the largest share of the vote in the constituency is direct­ly elected.   Voters choose a party using their second vote. Each party has a state list of candidates, and the parties are allotted seats proportionately to the second vote.

In principle, half of the seats in the Bun­destag are distributed on the basis of the party lists, while the other half are con­stituency seats. However, this only accounts for only 598 of the current 709 seats.   The additional 111 seats have been awarded on the basis of the overhang mandates (46 seats) and the balance mandates (65 seats).

Over­ hang mandates occur when the number of constituency seats won by a party in a particular state exceeds the number of seats to which it would be entitled on the strength of the second vote.  In addition, since 2013 the effect of the overhang mandates has been offset by the allocation of addition­al seats –   balance mandates – which  ensure that the distribution of seats accurately reflects the proportional distribution of the second votes. Electoral reform to avoid such large parliaments is currently being considered.

Chancellor

The Chancellor – currently Angela Merkel  –  is the head of government and under Article 65 of the constitution is responsible for guiding policy and appointing ministers. The Chancellor is elected by the Bundestag and can also be deposed by a constructive vote of no-confidence (this tool has only be used twice, once in 1972, when a CDU/CSU motion to replace SPD Chancellor Willy Brandt was defeated, and once  in 1982, when Helmut Schmidt, also an SPD Chancellor, was replaced by Helmut Kohl of the CDU/CSU)

Coalitions

Coalition governments are common in Germany – indeed currently all the state governments and the Federal government are coalitions. Coalitions are referred to by a shorthand based on the party colours:

Coalitions between the SPD (party colour: red), Liberals (party colour:yellow) and Green Party (party colour: green) are known as traffic light coalitions.

Coalitions between the CDU (party colour: black), the SPD (red) and Green Party (green) are known as Kenya coalitions, because of the colours of Kenya’s flag.

Coalitions between the CDU (black), FDP (yellow) and Green Party (green) are known as Jamaica coalitions.

A grand coalition is a coalition between the two largest parties, usually the CDU and SPD.

Committees (Ausschüsse)

Standing/permanent  committees (Ständige Ausschüsse) advise on, prepare  and scrutinise legislation, and try and find majority support for legislation with a recommendation (Beschlussempfehlung).   There are currently  24 permanent commit­tees, established since the 2017 election, with between 14 and 49 members, which reflect the relative strengths of the parliamenta­ry groups.  The remits of the Bundestag committees generally match the portfolios of the government ministries (exceptions are the Committee for the Scrutiny of Elections, Immunity and the Rules of Procedure, the Commit­tee on Human Rights and Humanitarian Aid, the Committee on Tourism and the Sports Committee.

Four committees are  pre­scribed by the Basic Law – the Defence Committee, the Committee on Foreign Affairs, the Committee on the Affairs of the European Union and the Petitions Committee.

Committees can also make sub-committees to examine particular subjects.  Sometimes  committees will seek advice from external experts at special hearings.  Com­mittees do not usually meet in public.

Committees of Inquiry

Committees of inquiry can be appointed at the request of at least a quarter of the Members of the Bundestag.  Committees of inquiry in­vestigate possible abuses in government and administration and possible mis­conduct on the part of politicians. The Mem­bers serving on committees of inquiry can require the submission of govern­ment files and summon government repre­sentatives as witnesses.

Council of Elders (Ältestenrat)

The Council of Elders is made up of  the President of the Bundestag, the Vice-Presidents and 23 other members, and assists the President in his or her work to ensure that the business of the Bundestag is coordinated as effectively as possible. It sets the dates of sitting weeks and agrees the plenary agenda.  The Council of Elders also mediates disputes.

The Federal Constitutional Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht)

The Federal Constitutional Court‘s duty is to ensure that the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany  is obeyed.   It is composed of 16 judges, half of whom are elected by the Bundestag and half by the Bundesrat, for 12 years.   The Court  consists of two Senates of 8 judges, each of which own remit.

The Federal Assembly (Bundesversammlung)

The Federal Assembly convenes every five years to elect the President of Germany.  It includes all members of the Bundestag and representatives of the Federal states.

The Joint Committee (Gemeinsame Auschuss)

The Joint Committee was set up as an amendment to the Basic Law in 1968, but has never met. Its work would be to act as an emergency parliament  in the case of a constitutional state of emergency (eg if Germany were under attack by armed forces).  It would consist of 48 members, two thirds from the Bundestag and one third from the Bundesrat.  

Majorities

Decisions are reached with either simple, absolute (over half of the votes of all MPs)  or two-third majorities.

Absolute majorities  are necessary for elections such as  the election of the Bundestag President and his or her deputies, the Chancellor, the Armed Forces Commissioner or a confidence motion.

Laws which necessitate a change in the constitution require a two-third majority.

Motions (Anträge)

MPS  can ask the government to report on a subject or to draft a law through motions.    Debates are held at the request of a parliamentary group or at least five per cent of the Members of the Bundestag or on the basis of an agree­ment reached at a meeting of the Coun­cil of Elders.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces (Der Wehrbeauftragte)

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces is elected by the Members of the Bundestag in a secret ballot every five years and assists the Bundestag in exercising parliamentary scrutiny of the Bundeswehr – for example they may investigate  problems in the Bundeswehr and report on the findings.The Commissioner submits an annual report.

Petitions Committee

The right of petition is a fundamental right enshrined in the constitution. Peti­tions give people an opportunity to explain how legislation affects them and the job of the Peti­tions Committee  is to examine and discuss the petitions.

Plenary (Plenum)

The plenary is the full session of all MPs (in other words, like the House of Commons chamber),  which debates laws and elects the Chancellor and President, and is always public.

President  of the Federal Republic (Bundespräsident)

The President of the Federal Republic is the Head of State.  The President is elected every five years and can only be elected once.  The current President is Frank-Walter Steinmeier.  

President of the Bundestag

The President of the Bundestag represents the Bundestag and occupies the second highest office of state after the Federal President – he or she is superior in rank to the Federal Chancellor and the President of the Bundesrat.  The President is responsible for business in the Bundestag, conducts sittings (in this the President is like the Speaker of the House of Commons) and is head of administration for the Bundestag. The President also acts as an ambassador for the Bundestag. The work of the President is supported by the Presidium. The current President of the Bundestag is Wolfgang Schäuble.

Presidium (Bundestagspräsidium)

The Presidium consists of the President and the Vice-presidents of the Bundestag, and are responsible for administration and allocating party funding. During this  electoral term, the Presidium consists of President Wolfgang Schäuble (CDU/ CSU) and Vice­ Presidents Thomas Oppermann (SPD), Hans­ Peter Friedrich (CDU/CSU), Wolfgang Kubicki (FDP), Petra Pau (The Left Party) and Claudia Roth (Alliance 90/The Greens).

Questions

Oral questions: individual Members can sub­mit written questions to the Govern­ment  and the government is required  to give direct answers to Members’ questions at a 35 minute question­ and­ answer session with ministers at parliamentary Question Time in each sitting week.

‘Minor’ questions (Kleine Anfrage) are written questions which receive written replies, but are not debated.

Parliamentary groups can also ask for  written information on particular issues by means of ‘major’ questions (Große Anfrage).   Answers to major ques­tions receive written answers and may result in parliamentary debates in which the Government is required to present its case and answer questions if at least 5% of members request this, and for this reason,  the Bundestag glossary  lists  them as one of the strongest parliamentary instruments.

Study commissions

At the request of at least one quarter of its Members, the German Bundestag must appoint a study commission to prepare decisions on  significant issues. Study commissions comprise Members of the Bundestag and external experts. They submit reports and recommendations to the Bundestag.

Timetable

There are usually 20 sitting weeks a year,  each week follows a timetable, which can be found on page 18 of ‘Facts: The Bundestag at a glance’.

On Mondays, MPs return from their constituencies and prepare for the week.  MPs are legally obliged to be present during sitting weeks. On Tuesdays, the parliamentary groups meet to discuss the items on the agenda.  On Wednesday mornings, the standing committees meet and the first plenary session takes place in the afternoon. On Thursdays, the plenary sits all day and on Friday, until early afternoon.

Voting 

Voting in the Bundestag plenary takes place by a show of hands; if this is not clear, then MPs vote by leaving the chamber and re-entering it through doors marked ‘Yes’ , ’No’ or ‘Abstain’ (the Hammelsprung system).

More information can be found in the Deutscher Bundestag publication ‘Facts: The Bundestag at a glance’ here (in English)  and from the Bundestag glossary (in German).

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