This article is about the current parliament of Germany. For the governing body of the Germany. Confederation from 1815 to 1866, see Bundesversammlung (German Confederation). Confederation from 1815 to 1866, see Bundesversammlung (German Confederation). The Bundestag (Federal Diet; pronounced [ˈbʊndəstaːk]) is a legislative body in Germany. In practice Germany is governed by a bicameral legislature, of which the Bundestag serves as the lower house and the Bundesrat the upper house. The Bundestag was established by the German Basic Law of 1949, as the successor to the earlier Reichstag. It meets in the Reichstag Building in Berlin.
Norbert Lammert is the current President of the Bundestag. With the new constitution of 1949, the Bundestag was established as the new (West) German parliament. Because West Berlin was not officially under the jurisdiction of the Constitution and because of the Cold War, the Bundestag met in Bonn in several different buildings, including (provisionally) a former water works facility. In addition, owing to the city’s legal status, citizens of West Berlin were unable to vote in elections to the Bundestag, and were instead represented by 20 non-voting delegates, indirectly elected by the city’s House of Representatives.
The Bundeshaus in Bonn is the former Parliament Building of Germany. The sessions of the German Bundestag were held there from 1949 until its move to Berlin in 1999. Today it houses the International Congress Centre Bundeshaus Bonn and in the north areas the branch office of the Bundesrat (upper house). The southern areas became part of German offices for the United Nations in 2008.
The former Reichstag building housed a history exhibition (Fragen an die deutsche Geschichte) and served occasionally as a conference center. The Reichstag building was also occasionally used as a venue for sittings of the Bundestag and its committees and the Bundesversammlung, the body which elects the German Federal President. However the Soviets harshly protested against the use of the Reichstag building by institutions of the Federal Republic of Germany and tried to disturb the sittings by flying supersonic jets close to the building.
Since 1999, the German parliament has again assembled in Berlin in its original Reichstag building, which dates from the 1890s and underwent a significant renovation under the lead of British architect Sir Norman Foster. Parliamentary committees and subcommittees, public hearings and faction meetings take place in three auxiliary buildings, which surround the Reichstag building: the Jakob-Kaiser-Haus, Paul-Löbe-Haus and Marie-Elisabeth-Lüders-Haus.
Together with the Bundesrat, the Bundestag is the legislative branch of the German political system.
Although most legislation is initiated by the executive branch, the Bundestag considers the legislative function its most important responsibility, concentrating much of its energy on assessing and amending the government’s legislative program. The committees (see below) play a prominent role in this process. Plenary sessions provide a forum for members to engage in public debate on legislative issues before them, but they tend to be well attended only when significant legislation is being considered.
The Bundestag members are the only federal officials directly elected by the public; the Bundestag in turn elects the Chancellor and, in addition, exercises oversight of the executive branch on issues of both substantive policy and routine administration. This check on executive power can be employed through binding legislation, public debates on government policy, investigations, and direct questioning of the chancellor or cabinet officials. For example, the Bundestag can conduct a question hour (Fragestunde), in which a government representative responds to a previously submitted written question from a member. Members can ask related questions during the question hour. The questions can concern anything from a major policy issue to a specific constituent’s problem. Use of the question hour has increased markedly over the past forty years, with more than 20,000 questions being posed during the 1987-90 term. Understandably, the opposition parties are active in exercising the parliamentary right to scrutinize government actions.
One striking difference when comparing the Bundestag with the British Parliament is the lack of time spent on serving constituents in Germany. This is in part due to Germany’s electoral system. A practical constraint on the expansion of constituent service is the limited personal staff of Bundestag deputies. Despite these constraints especially those deputies that are elected directly normally try to keep close contact with their constituents and to help them with their problems, particularly when they are related to federal policies or agencies.
Constituent service does also take place in the form of the Petition Committee. In 2004, the Petition Committee received over 18,000 complaints from citizens and was able to negotiate a mutually satisfactory solution to more than half of them. In 2005, as a pilot of the potential of internet petitions, a version of e-Petitioner was produced for the Bundestag. This was a collaborative project involving The Scottish Parliament, International Teledemocracy Centre and the Bundestag ‘Online Services Department’. The system was formally launched on 1 September 2005, and in 2008 the Bundestag moved to a new system based on its evaluation.
Members serve four-year terms; elections are held every four years, or earlier in the relatively rare case that the Bundestag is dissolved prematurely by the president. The Bundestag can be dissolved by the president on the recommendation of the chancellor if the latter has lost a vote of confidence in the Bundestag. This has happened three times: 1972 under Chancellor Willy Brandt, 1983 under Chancellor Helmut Kohl and 2005 under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.
All candidates must be at least eighteen years old; there are no term limits. The election uses the MMP electoral system. In addition, the Bundestag has a minimum threshold of either 5% of the national party vote or three (directly elected) constituency representatives for a party to gain additional representation through the system of proportional representation.
Thus, small minority parties cannot easily enter the Bundestag and prevent the formation of stable majority governments as they could under the Weimar constitution. Since 1961, only two new parties (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen and PDS/Die Linke) have entered the Bundestag.
The most recent election, the German federal election, 2009, was held on September 27, 2009.
Distribution of seats in the Bundestag
Half of the Members of the Bundestag are elected directly from 299 constituencies (first-past-the-post system), the other half are elected from the parties’ Land lists in such a way as to achieve proportional representation for the total Bundestag (if possible).
Accordingly, each voter has two votes in the elections to the Bundestag. The first vote, allowing voters to elect their local representatives to the Bundestag, decides which candidates are sent to Parliament from the constituencies.
The second vote is cast for a party list; it determines the relative strengths of the parties represented in the Bundestag.
At least 598 Members of the Bundestag are elected in this way. Parties that gain more than 5% of the second votes or win at least 3 direct mandates are allocated seats in the Bundestag in proportion to the number of votes it has received (d’Hondt method until 1987, largest remainder method until the 2005 election, now Sainte-Laguë method). When the total number of mandates gained by a party has been determined, they are distributed between the Land lists. The distribution of the seats of that party to the 16 Lands is proportional to that party’s second vote results in the Lands. The first of the mandates allocated to each Land go to the candidates who have won direct mandates in that Land. The rest are assigned in order to the candidates on the Land list put forward before the election.
In addition to this, there are certain circumstances in which some candidates win what are known as overhang seats when the seats are being distributed. If a party has gained more direct mandates in a Land than it is entitled to according to the results of the second vote, it does not forfeit these mandates because all directly elected candidates are guaranteed a seat in the Bundestag.
The most important organisational structures within the Bundestag are parliamentary groups (Fraktionen; sing. Fraktion), which are formed by political parties represented in the chamber which incorporate more than 5% of the Bundestag legislators; CDU and CSU have always formed a single united Fraktion. The size of a party’s Fraktion determines the extent of its representation on legislative committees, the time slots allotted for speaking, the number of committee chairs it can hold, and its representation in executive bodies of the Bundestag. The Fraktionen, not the members, receive the bulk of government funding for legislative and administrative activities.
The Bundestag’s executive bodies include the Council of Elders and the Presidium. The council consists of the Bundestag leadership, together with the most senior representatives of each fraktion, with the number of these representatives tied to the strength of the Parliamentary groups in the chamber. The council is the coordination hub, determining the daily legislative agenda and assigning committee chairpersons based on Parliamentary group representation. The council also serves as an important forum for interparty negotiations on specific legislation and procedural issues. The Presidium is responsible for the routine administration of the Bundestag, including its clerical and research activities. It consists of the chamber’s president (usually elected from the largest fraktion) and vice presidents (one from each fraktion).
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