The Bundesrat ("federal council") is the representation of the 16 Germany at the federal level. It has its seat at the former Prussian Herrenhaus (House of Lords) in Berlin.
The Bundesrat is composed of delegates from the sixteen German states (Länder). It's composition is different from other legislative bodies representing states (e.g. the United States Senate) in that population is a factor as the following table shows.
This system of representation, although designed to reflect Land populations more accurately than equal representation would, in fact still affords greater representation per inhabitant to the smaller Länder.
Since state elections are not coordinated across Germany and can occur at any time, the majority distributions in the Bundesrat can change after any such election.
In contrast to many other legislative bodies, the state delegates to the Bundesrat are required to vote as a bloc and represent the position of the state government. The delegates are picked by the government and tend to be ministers within the same. Since coalition governments are very common in state governments, many states choose to abstain if their coalition cannot agree on a position. In accord with the German constitution, such abstentions are counted as "nay" votes. A law passed in 2002 with a split vote by the Brandenburg delegation was declared void by the German Constitutional Court.
Main article: President of the Bundesrat
The chairperson or speaker is the President of the Bundesrat (Bundesratspräsident). The presidency rotates annually among the minister-presidents of each of the federal Länder (states). The President of the Bundesrat convenes and chairs plenary sessions of the body and is formally responsible for representing the Federal Republic in the Bundesrat. He or she is aided by three vice-presidents who play an advisory role and deputise in the president's absence. The four together make up the Bundesrat's praesidium.
The Prussian House of Lords in the Leipziger Straße, seat of the Bundesrat.
Because the Bundesrat is so much smaller than the Bundestag, and also because it is more or less an organized cooperation of Land governments rather than a real parliament, 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. The voting Bundesrat delegates themselves rarely attend committee sessions; instead, they delegate that responsibility to civil servants from their ministries, as allowed for in the Basic Law. The delegates tend to spend most of their time in their state 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. Constitutional changes require a majority of 2/3 of all votes, thus giving the Bundesrat an absolute veto against constitutional change. Against all other legislation the Bundesrat has a suspensive veto, which can be overriden by passing the law again. As an added provision, a law vetoed with a majority of 2/3 must be passed again with a majority of 2/3 in the other chamber. If the absolute veto is used, either chamber or the government can convene a joint comitee to negotiate a compromise. That compromise cannot be amended and both chambers are required to hold a final vote on the compromise as is.
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, which has been the case almost constantly since 1991. Whenever this happens, 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 in other countries.
Criticisms of the current legislative system
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.
It could also be argued that the Bundesrat serves as a control mechanism on the Bundestag in the sense of a system of checks and balances. Since the executive and legislative functions are closely inertwined in any parliamentary system, the Bundesrat's ability to revisit and slow down legislative processes could be seen as making up for that loss of separation.
Other observers claim that the opposing majorities lead to an increase in backroom politics, where small groups of high-tier leaders make all the important decisions and the Bundestag representatives only have a choice between agreeing with them or not getting anything at all done. The German "Federalism Commission" was looking into this issue, among others. There have been frequent suggestions of replacing the Bundesrat with a US-style elected Senate, which would be elected at the same date as the Bundestag. This is hoped to increase the institution's popularity, reduce Land bureaucracy influence on legislation, make opposing majorities less likely, make the legislative process more transparent, and generally set a new standard of democratic, rather than bureaucratic leadership. It remains to be seen if existing party leaderships are willing to support such a step, however.
- Bundesrat (Germany) (http://www3.bundesrat.de/Site/Inhalt/EN/)