Second Houses – What they do elsewhere
The Bundesrat – a bulwark of German democracy
The Bundesrat is comprised of delegates sent by the governments of the 16 federal states.
The Bundesrat is comprised of delegates sent by the governments of the 16 federal states. Bundesrat seats, and thus votes, are divided proportional to population size: a minimum of three, a maximum of six. Germany’s regular schedule of state elections means the majorities in the upper house are constantly shifting.
The Bundesrat is consulted on all legislative matters.
It is not possible for states to split their votes – all must be cast en bloc. In issues of dispute among a state’s coalition government, their representatives may abstain.
Its support is required on between a half and two-thirds of votes in any term – primarily Bills that alter the constitution or matters on which the states have competence, or matter which affect their tax or other financial affairs. If a Bill requiring Bundesrat approvals fails to pass, it goes to the mediation council – an independent body with 16 members from Bundestag and Bundesrat – where a compromise is attempted ahead of another vote.
Around a third of all Bills per legislative period do not require explicit Bundesrat approval. The upper house can vote against, but this in turn can be overturned by an absolute Bundestag majority.
A regular occurrence in German politics is that a sitting federal government suffers a string of state election defeats, shifting the balance of power in the Bundesrat. A two-thirds opposition blocking majority in the Bundesrat can result in a “lame duck” government.
This happened in the last year of the Schröder administration and in the final months of Merkel’s just-completed second term. In this situation the Bundesrat “opposition” majority – relative to the Bundestag – can start its own legislative initiatives against the sitting federal government and its Bundestag majority.
Ostensibly independent, it is not unusual for votes to be made on party lines and — in tight votes of symbolic importance – it can happen that the chancellor meets state representatives and distribute sweeteners on other matters to secure their support.
Bundesrat influence on German politics extends beyond day-to-day legislative affairs. An upper house majority is required to change the constitution; it has an explicit competence in European affairs, chooses half of all constitutional court judges and can refer any laws it wishes to Germany’s highest court.
It has a say in other senior personnel decisions, such as the federal prosecutor.
The Bundesrat meets in plenary session around 12 times a year, with sessions chaired by a rotating president or one of three vice-presidents.