Committees Functions and responsibilities of the committees
Each electoral term, the Bundestag’s permanent committees are established anew, with new names and a different composition. The Bundestag does not have a completely free hand when setting up the committees, since some are enshrined in the German constitution, the Basic Law, and others are provided for by statute. These committees include the Petitions Committee and the Defence Committee.
However, most permanent committees at the Bundestag are set up to mirror the division of responsibilities within the government: as a rule, each federal ministry is paired with a parliamentary committee. But Parliament can also give prominence to particular areas of policy by setting up additional committees.
Variation in the number of committees
The number of permanent committees can vary from one electoral term to the next. In its first term in 1949 for example, the Bundestag had 40 committees, whilst in the sixth electoral term it had 17.
In addition, the permanent committees can set up subcommittees to focus on specific topics.
Composition reflects the distribution of seats in the plenary
Each committee consists of a chair, a deputy chair and a certain number of members, each of whom has a substitute to deputise for them in their absence. The number of members varies from committee to committee, depending on the amount of work which can be expected.
The seats on a committee are distributed in line with the relative strengths of the parties in the plenary. Each parliamentary group is entitled to a certain number of committee members proportional to its share of seats in the Bundestag. The leaders of the parliamentary groups decide which of their Members are to sit on a particular committee. They strive to accommodate the wishes of the Members as far as possible. Ideally, each Member should only be a full member of a single committee.
Agreement is achieved by means of a mathematical formula
The committee chairpersons occupy significant positions: they prepare, convene and conduct the committee meetings.
Negotiations take place between the parliamentary groups on the selection of committee chairs and deputies. If no agreement is found –as was the case after the last election – the Sainte-Laguë/Schepers method is applied.
This mathematical formula is used to calculate “rank order numbers”, on the basis of which the parliamentary groups take turns in deciding which of the committee chairpersonships they wish to have.
Parliamentary groups and their coordinators
Alongside the chairpersons, the group coordinators on the committees also play a key role: each parliamentary group nominates a coordinator for each committee and they act as the main points of contact for the group leaders.
On the one hand, the group coordinators are instrumental in deciding the course to be taken by their parliamentary groups in the individual committees. On the other, they also play a role as mediators in negotiations where conflicts arise.
Voting rights of members
Every full member of a committee has one vote when decisions are taken. Substitutes may participate in all committee meetings, but are only entitled to vote when deputising for a full member from their parliamentary group who is not present.
Members who do not belong to either a parliamentary group or a grouping are consulted by the President of the German Bundestag, who then allocates them a seat on a committee. These Members are entitled to speak and table motions in the committee on which they sit, but have no voting rights.
Preparation of decisions
The Rules of Procedure of the German Bundestag describe the permanent committees as bodies responsible for preparing the decisions of the Bundestag. This brief definition suggests the huge significance of the committees for parliamentary work.
The committees discuss bills relating to their policy areas, and the lead committee responsible for a certain bill revises it in such a way that it can be passed by the plenary at the end of the process. The “recommendation for a decision” provided by the lead committee may however also recommend that a bill be declared “redundant” – because the provisions concerned have in the meantime been adopted as part of another bill, for instance.
The Bundestag plenary votes on the recommendations made by the committees – generally following another debate. The committee members therefore make a decisive contribution to the substantive work in the legislative process.
The right of initiative and hearings
As a rule, the committees are assigned their work by the Bundestag plenary. Following the first reading in the plenary, bills are referred to the relevant specialist committees for deliberation, either as the “lead committee”, as a committee asked to provide an opinion in the course of deliberations, or as a committee asked to submit an expert opinion.
The committees can also take up matters on their own initiative, however. On the basis of this right to take up issues on their own authority, they may deliberate on issues that fall within their terms of reference without referral from the plenary, and obtain information about legislative projects from the ministries.
The committees are also able to hold public hearings, to which interest-group representatives and experts are invited. Hearings of this kind are intended to give the committee members access to additional information and provide them with as comprehensive information as possible on the potential impacts of the law.
Every committee can establish subcommittees to prepare and support its work. These subcommittees deal on an ongoing basis with certain specific aspects of policy falling within the main committee’s remit, and prepare the committee’s decisions on the relevant issues.