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The Bundestag was also the name of the governing body of the German Confederation from 1815-1866. This body met in Frankfurt and was presided over by the Austrian delegate. As one of the chief instruments of the reactionary forces opposed to democracy and nationalism, it was dissolved during the liberal revolution of 1848 but reconvened in 1850. It is a predecessor to the modern Bundestag in name only. While the modern parliament is elected by the people, the Bundestag of the German Confederation was appointed by the various regional kings, archdukes, and princes.
With the dissolution of the German Confederation in 1866 and the founding of the German Empire in 1871, the Reichstag was established as the German parliament in Berlin. The Reichstag delegates were elected by the (male) people, and the three-class electoral system prevailing in Prussia did not apply to the Reichstag elections. However, the parliament still lacked the right to appoint and dismiss the Chancellor. After the Revolution of 1918 and the establishment of the Weimar Constitution, women were given the right to vote for (and serve in) the Reichstag, and the parliament appointed and dismissed the government. In 1933, the Reichstag voluntarily ceded its powers to Chancellor Adolf Hitler, who banned all opposition parties. Afterward it met only rarely to unanimously rubber-stamp the decisions of the government. It was last convened on 26 April 1942.
In 1949, with the establishment of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany), the Bundestag was established as the new (West) German parliament. Because Berlin was not officially part of the Federal Republic, the Bundestag met in Bonn in several different buildings, including (provisionally) a former water works facility. The former Reichstag building housed a history exhibition ("Fragen an die deutsche Geschichte") and served occasionally as a conference center.
Since 1999, the German parliament has again assembled in Berlin in the Reichstag building, which is still known as the Reichstag. This building dates from the 1870's and underwent a significant renovation under the lead of architect Sir Norman Foster.
Together with the Bundesrat, the Bundestag forms the legislative branch of the German political system; Germany does not have a bicameral parliament in the strict sense though (see Bundesrat for details).
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 Bundeskanzler 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 U.S. Congress is the lack of time spent on serving constituents in Germany. In part, that difference results from the fact that only 50 percent of Bundestag deputies are directly elected to represent a specific geographic district; the other half are elected as party representatives (see below). The political parties are thus of great importance in Germany's electoral system, and many voters tend not to see the candidates as autonomous political personalities but rather as creatures of the party. Interestingly, constituent service seems not to be perceived, either by the electorate or by the representatives, as a critical function of the legislator. A practical constraint on the expansion of constituent service is the limited personal staff of Bundestag deputies.
Members serve four-year terms; elections are held every four years (or earlier if a government falls from power). All candidates must be at least eighteen years old; there are no term limits. The election uses the additional member system, a hybrid of the first-past-the-post election system and party-list proportional representation. 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. The additional member system results in a varying number of seats; since the 2002 elections, there have been 603 seats. The distribution of the seats is calculated by the Largest remainder method. The overhang seats are distributed according to the vote count separately for each state.
Election results 2002:
|Party||percent of vote||Seats|
|SPD||38.5%||251 (incl. 4 overhang seats)|
|CDU/CSU||38.5%||248 (incl. 1 overhang seat)|
|PDS||4.0%||2 (both directly elected)|
For a list of current members, see the List of Bundestag Members
The most important organizational structures within the Bundestag are parliamentary groups (Fraktionen; sing. Fraktion), which are formed by political parties represented in the chamber which have gained more than 5% of the total votes. The size of a party's Fraktion determines the extent of its representation on legislative committees, the time slots alloted 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 leadership of each Fraktion consists of a parliamentary party leader, several deputy leaders, and an executive committee. The leadership's major responsibilities are to represent the Fraktion, enforce party discipline, and orchestrate the party's parliamentary activities. The members of each Fraktion are distributed among working groups focused on specific policy-related topics such as social policy, economics, and foreign policy. The Fraktion meets once a week to consider legislation before the Bundestag and formulate the party's position on it.
Parties which do not fulfill the criterion for being a Fraktion but which have got at least three seats by direct elections (i.e. which have got at least three MPs which represent a certain electoral district) in the Bundestag can be granted the status of a group of the Bundestag. This applied to the Party of Democratic Socialism(PDS) from 1998-2002. This status entails some privileges which are in general less than those of a Fraktion. In the current Bundestag, there are no such groups (the PDS has got only two MPs in the parliament and is thus not even considered a group any more).
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 party in the chamber. The council is the coordination hub, determining the daily legislative agenda and assigning committee chairpersons based on party 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).
Most of the legislative work in the Bundestag is the product of standing committees. Although this is common practice in the U.S. Congress, it is uncommon in other parliamentary systems, such as the British House of Commons and the French National Assembly. The number of committees approximates the number of federal ministries, and the titles of each are roughly similar (e.g., defense, agriculture, and labor). Between 1987 and 1990, the term of the eleventh Bundestag, there were twenty-one standing committees. The distribution of committee chairs and the membership of each committee reflect the relative strength of the various parties in the chamber. In the eleventh Bundestag, the CDU/CSU chaired eleven committees, the SPD eight, the FDP one, and the environmentalist party, the Greens (Die Grünen), one. Unlike in the United States Congress, where all committees are chaired by members of the majority party, the German system allows members of the opposition party to chair a significant number of standing committees. These committees have either a small staff or no staff at all.
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