Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Bundesrat (Germany)

In politics of Germany, the Bundesrat (German for "Federal Council") is the representation of the 16 Federal States (Bundesländer) at the federal level.

It is frequently stated that Germany has a bicameral parliament (with the Bundestag and Bundesrat being the lower and upper houses, respectively), but this is debatable in the strict sense the term is used with the parliaments of other countries. For one, not all laws require the consent of the Bundesrat. The distinction isn't entirely clear cut, however. The United Kingdom's House of Lords, which is generally considered to be the upper house of a bicameral parliament, is not theoretically required to assent to any Bill. Still, common terminology in Germany (and in German textbooks) is that the Bundestag is Germany's parliament, and the Bundesrat is something unique.

Members of the Bundesrat are not popularly elected but are appointed by their respective Land governments. Members tend to be Land government ministers. The Bundesrat has sixty-nine members. The Länder with more than 7 million inhabitants have six seats (Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria, Lower Saxony, and North Rhine-Westphalia). The Länder with populations of between 2 million and 7 million have four seats (Berlin, Brandenburg, Hesse, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Rhineland-Palatinate, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, Schleswig-Holstein, and Thuringia). The least populous Länder, with fewer than 2 million inhabitants, receive three seats each (Bremen, Hamburg, and the Saarland). This system of representation, although designed to reflect Land populations accurately, in fact affords greater representation per inhabitant to the smaller Länder . The presidency of the Bundesrat rotates annually among the Länder . By law, each Land delegation is required to vote as a bloc in accordance with the instructions of the Land government.

Because the Bundesrat is so much smaller than the Bundestag, it does not require the extensive organizational structure of the lower house. The Bundesrat typically schedules plenary sessions once a month for the purpose of voting on legislation prepared in committee. In comparison, the Bundestag conducts about fifty plenary sessions a year. Bundesrat representatives rarely attend committee sessions; instead, they delegate that responsibility to civil servants from their ministries, as allowed for in the Basic Law. The members tend to spend most of their time in their Land capitals, rather than in the federal capital.

The legislative authority of the Bundesrat is subordinate to that of the Bundestag, but the upper house nonetheless plays a vital legislative role. The federal government must present all legislative initiatives first to the Bundesrat; only thereafter can a proposal be passed to the Bundestag. Further, the Bundesrat must approve all legislation affecting policy areas for which the Basic Law grants the Länder concurrent powers and for which the Länder must administer federal regulations. The Bundesrat has increased its legislative responsibilities over time by successfully arguing for a broad, rather than a narrow, interpretation of what constitutes the range of legislation affecting Land interests. In 1949 only 10 percent of all federal laws, namely, those directly affecting the Länder, required Bundesrat approval. In 1993 close to 60 percent of federal legislation required the upper house's assent. The Basic Law also provides the Bundesrat with an absolute veto of such legislation.

The political power of the absolute veto is particularly evident when the opposition party or parties in the Bundestag have a majority in the Bundesrat. When this is the case, the opposition can threaten the government's legislative program. Such a division of authority can complicate the process of governing when the major parties disagree, and, unlike the Bundestag, the Bundesrat cannot be dissolved under any circumstances. Such stalemates are not unlike those that may be experienced under cohabitation.

Some observers emphasize that different majorities in the two chambers ensure that all legislation, when approved, has the support of a broad political spectrum--a particularly valuable attribute in the aftermath of unification, when consensus on critical policy decisions is vital. The formal representation of the Länder in the federal government through the upper chamber provides an obvious forum for the coordination of policy between the Länder and the federal government. The need for such coordination, particularly given the specific, crucial needs of the eastern Länder, has become only more important.

Related articles

External link