Every polity needs firm rules according to which it can exist and peacefully develop further. It should be possible for the innumerable different wishes, ideas and interests of citizens to evolve and materialise in freedom - not at the expense of someone else or of someone weaker, but in a regulated manner alongside and in harmony with his or her freedom and interests. There must therefore be universally valid rules which are binding on every citizen but also binding on authorities in the action they take.

What are these rules and who draws them up? The most important are contained in the constitution, which in Germany is called the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany. It lays down the basic rights, some of which are rights protecting citizens from state intervention - such as the right to life and to physical integrity, to self-fulfilment, freedom of faith and conscience or the right freely to choose and practise an occupation or profession -, and some of which are political participatory rights, such as freedom of assembly and freedom of association, freedom of expression or the right freely to establish political parties. The Basic Law contains such important guarantees as universal equality before the law, equality of men and women and, right at the beginning, in the first sentence of Article 1, paragraph (1), the duty of all public authority to respect and protect the inviolable dignity of all people.

At the same time, the Basic Law contains all essential regulations governing the structure of the state and the basis of state action. One of these important provisions states that the executive (i.e. authorities and agencies) is bound by law and justice in its actions. The Federal Republic of Germany is not only a democratic and social federal state, it is also governed by the rule of law. This means that authorities and agencies do not act arbitrarily but on the basis of all those binding rules mentioned earlier. All action by public authority can be reviewed by courts, citizens may lodge an objection and institute legal proceedings to fight for their rights, if they should have been denied them. To this end, standards are required on which the courts have to base their decisions, and these are to be found in laws.

In a modern democratic state, legislation is therefore an extremely important matter. The essential provisions on legislation are contained in the Basic Law, which outlines the legislative procedure to be described and explained in greater detail below. This is the only way of ensuring that the relevant procedure is complied with; given its public nature, citizens may at any time exercise scrutiny and form an opinion of their own about the issues at stake.

This is the reason why federal bills may only be adopted by the Bundestag: its debates are public - they are covered by the press, radio and television - and the only people who may participate in taking the decision on each bill are the elected Members of the Bundestag (the number laid down in the Federal Electoral Act is 598; on account of overhang mandates there are currently 709 Members). Because laws are rules binding on the entire people, they must be considered and adopted by Parliament.

Article 77, paragraph (1) of the Basic Law therefore contains the following provision: “Federal laws shall be adopted by the Bundestag.” Many people may and should participate in the substantive elaboration of bills, but responsibility for them must be assumed by those elected for this purpose. Members are elected for a limited period of time, the electoral term of the Bundestag lasts 4 years. The term of office of Members thus ends after this period and elections are held, as a result of which the Government with its legislative programme is confirmed in office or voted out of office. This is the essential feature of a democratic state: a Government may be removed from office by peaceful means and replaced by another; this is not possible under undemocratic regimes.

A state under the rule of law is therefore governed in practice with the help of laws and by means of laws, and there are thus close links between legislation and politics. For this reason it is useful to examine in greater detail the legislative process and those involved in it.