Wednesday, August 29, 2007

On second chambers: The Bundesrat of Germany

Continuing my look at second chambers around the world, we now turn to look at the Bundesrat of Germany.

Composition: 69 votes. Members are appointed by the Länder (state) cabinets and are invariably members of the cabinet, headed by the Ministerpräsidents (state premiers). In theory a Länder can appoint a single delegate. Votes are allocated in proportion to a state's population, with between three and six per state. There is an upper limit of 6 votes per state. Each state casts a single block vote.

Fairness of representation: This is a curious set-up for by and away the most explicit "representing the states" upper house I've looked at so far. And yet voting power is rooted in population size, rather than the equal votes for each state model in Australia. The allocation is slightly biased to the smaller states. As each state casts a block vote (a split delegation abstains but this de facto is a no vote) the principle that members are voting on behalf of what their states want is upheld, though as the state and federal party systems are much the same the potential for partisan voting is still present.

Powers and conventions: All legislation must be introduced in the Bundesrat. The Bundesrat has the power to block legislation in all policy areas that the Basic Law (constitution) grants power to the Länder or where the Länder have to administer federal regulations. (This proportion has grown - from 10% in 1949 to about 60% in 1993.)

On other legislation the Bundesrat has a temporary veto that can be overturned by a further vote of the Bundestag. If the Bundesrat blocks something with a 2/3 majority the Bundestag needs a 2/3 vote to overturn it.

Conflict resolution: For federal only matters, there is the mechanism for the Bundestag to overturn the Bundesrat's block. If the absolute veto is wielded then either house or the government can convene a committee to work negotiate a compromise. That compromise must be passed by both houses, but neither can amend it. There is no mechanism to dissolve the Bundesrat. Consequently when it has an opposition party majority then a stalemate can occur.

Protector against the tyranny of the majority vs bastion against democracy: One problem in recent years has been the tendency for opposition parties to use the Bundesrat as a way to frustrate the government of the day, rather than to protect the interests of the states. However as the Länder have competency in the areas where they have an absolute veto then requiring explicit consent is a way to prevent conflicts between the two. The Bundesrat does have strong powers so can take a stand against a majority in the Bundestag, though can not totally block it.

Anything else?: There have been calls to move to a system of directly electing the Bundesrat, similar to the Australian Senate. The German constitution explicitly bars referendums and plebiscites on any matter bar changes to Länder borders, so there is no option to put a contentious matter directly to the people to break a stalemate.

(Although not directly covering the Bundesrat, one notable feature of the German system of government is that the Chancellor can only be removed from office by a constructive vote of no confidence, which must nominate a successor to have effect. So unlike the Australian system, with all the problems exposed in the 1975 constitutional crisis, the German government's survival cannot be threatened by the upper house.)

Anything worth copying?: To be honest very little at the moment. The UK isn't yet fully federal and would need devolution in all four parts, with each chamber wielding equal power, in order for the similar powers to work. Devolved parliaments sending a ministerial delegation to an upper house to cast a block vote is remarkably similar to the EU Council of Ministers and likely to provoke many of the same objections. The dispute mechanism is also rather weak in producing an outcome. And without the provision for a matter the two houses can't agree on to be put to the people, whether directly through a referendum or by a new election for both houses, there isn't a way to overcome some of the stalemates.

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