The committee chairpersons

The position of committee chairperson is important and complex. Under the Rules of Procedure the committee chairpersons convene meetings, set the agenda and, like the President of the Bundestag in the plenary, preside over meetings and have the power to take measures for the maintenance of order. In practice, however, chairpersons must cooperate with the parliamentary groups, particularly with the parliamentary group spokespersons on the committee (see below), and are not permitted to set their own priorities or force through their own ideas against the committee's will. The chairpersons therefore tend to remain in the background of discussions. They endeavour to remain objective and impartial, to settle differences of opinion for the purpose of clearing up misunderstandings and facilitating decision-making, to sum up debates and propose compromise solutions. It is the duty of the committee chairpersons to facilitate objective discussions and they are most likely to succeed in doing so if they have the confidence of all the parliamentary groups.

The confidence of the parliamentary groups in the chairpersons cannot, however, be taken for granted. This is due to the special nature of the system of committee membership in the Bundestag. Firstly, the composition of the committees reflects the relative strengths of the parliamentary groups in the Bundestag. The majority parties in the Bundestag, i.e. the coalition which voted the Government into power and which gives the Government its support, are also in the majority in the committees. Secondly, the relative strengths of the parliamentary groups are also reflected among the committee chairpersons taken as a whole. Thus some committees, the majority of whose members are from the coalition parties, are chaired by Members of the Bundestag from opposition parties. In other words, the committee chairpersons are required, often regardless of their own political views and those of their political allies, to promote and facilitate committee decisions with which they do not always personally agree.

The standing of the committee chairpersons therefore depends all the more on the confidence put in them by the committee members and by their resultant willingness to allow the chairpersons a certain degree of freedom in the conduct of business even if they are from a different party. In all they do, therefore, the committee chairpersons remain in constant contact with the parliamentary group spokespersons on the committee. The spokespersons, who are nominated by the parliamentary groups, occupy a position similar to that of the Parliamentary Secretaries of the parliamentary groups in relation to the plenary and the Council of Elders. Taking into account the provisions of the Rules of Procedure, they prepare the political arguments and tactics to be used by their parliamentary groups in a committee meeting; conduct preliminary discussions; negotiate the agenda, main items of business and format of the meeting with Members from other parliamentary groups; see to it that their parliamentary group colleagues on the committee attend committee meetings; and ensure that the position taken by their parliamentary group at committee meetings conforms with the overall party line. Their task is significant because otherwise the detailed specialist work done in the individual committees would acquire a momentum of its own, becoming impossible to coordinate and leading eventually to political inconsistency.

Committees and committee chairpersons are supported in their work by the secretariat of the relevant committee. The secretariat is headed by a committee secretary, who is assisted by clerical assistants and secretarial staff, and sometimes by further staff members from the higher-service stream of the civil service. All of these staff members belong to the Administration of the Bundestag. The secretariats propose to the committee chairpersons items for inclusion in the committee's agenda; organise meetings; give advice before and during meetings on specific aspects of the subject under discussion and of the Rules of Procedure as well as on potential sources of dispute; keep the list of speakers; and keep summary records of meetings. The secretariats remain in constant contact with the Federal Government, in particular with the ministry whose area of competence corresponds to that of the committee, as well as with other administrative units of the Bundestag and with relevant interest groups and organisations.