Passage of legislation
First comes the bill
Laws determine how individuals live together. They are general rules that are binding on the whole community. This is why they are debated and adopted in Germany’s most important democratic forum: the German Bundestag.
However, it is not just the Members of the German Bundestag who are able to initiate the bills that result in new acts of law. The Federal Government and the Bundesrat also have the right to introduce bills in the Bundestag.
Most bills and items for discussion are drawn up by the Federal Government. As the central level of the executive, it has most experience of the implementation of legislation and possesses direct knowledge of where new statutory provisions are needed in practice.
Initiatives introduced by the Federal Government or the Bundesrat
If the Federal Government wishes to amend or introduce a law, the Federal Chancellor must initially transmit the bill to the Bundesrat.
As a rule, the Bundesrat then has a period of six weeks in which to deliver its comments on the bill, to which the government may in turn respond with a written counterstatement. The Federal Chancellor then forwards the bill to the Bundestag with the Bundesrat’s comments. One exception to this procedure is the draft Budget Act, which is transmitted simultaneously to the Bundesrat and the Bundestag.
A similar procedure applies when legislative initiatives are introduced by the Bundesrat. Once the majority of the Members of the Bundesrat have voted in favour of a bill, it goes first to the Federal Government, which attaches its comments to it, usually within six weeks, and then forwards it to the Bundestag.
Initiatives introduced from the floor of the Bundestag
Draft laws may also be initiated by Members of the German Bundestag, in which case they must be supported by either at least one of the parliamentary groups or at least five percent – at present 31 – of the Members of the German Bundestag.
Bills introduced in this way do not have to be submitted first to the Bundesrat. This is why the government sometimes arranges for particularly urgent bills to be introduced by its parliamentary groups in the Bundestag.
Distribution of printed papers
Before a bill can be deliberated on in the Bundestag, it must initially be transmitted to the President of the German Bundestag, then registered and printed by the Administration.
Subsequently, it is distributed to all the Members of the German Bundestag, the members of the Bundesrat and the federal ministries as a Bundestag printed paper.
As soon as the bill has been placed on the agenda of the plenary, the first stage of its passage through Parliament is over: it is now about to be officially introduced into the public forum of the Bundestag.
Three readings in the plenary
As a rule, bills are debated three times in the plenary of the Bundestag – these debates are known as readings.
During the first reading, a debate is only held if this has been agreed in the Council of Elders or demanded by one of the parliamentary groups. For the most part, this happens when legislative projects are particularly controversial or of special interest to the public.
The primary goal of the first reading is to designate one or several committees that are to consider the bill and prepare it for its second reading. This is done on the basis of the recommendations made by the Council of Elders.
If several committees are designated, one committee is then given overall responsibility for the deliberations on the item. It is therefore responsible for the bill’s passage through Parliament. The other committees are asked for their opinions on the bill.
Legislative work in the committees
The detailed work on legislation takes place in the permanent committees, which are made up of Members from all the parliamentary groups. The committee members familiarise themselves with the material and deliberate on it at their meetings. They are also able to invite representatives of interest groups and experts to public hearings.
In parallel to the work done by the committees, the parliamentary groups form working groups, in which they examine the issues concerned and define their own positions.
It is not unusual for bridges to be built between the parliamentary groups in the committees. Most bills are revised to a greater or lesser extent as a result of collaboration between the governing and opposition parliamentary groups.
Following the conclusion of the deliberations, the committee with overall responsibility for a bill presents the plenary with a report on the course and results of its deliberations. The decision it recommends forms the basis for the second reading that now takes place in the plenary.
Debate during the second reading
Before the second reading, all the Members receive the published recommendation for a decision in printed form. They are therefore well prepared for the debate. Apart from this, the parliamentary groups coordinate their positions once again in internal meetings prior to this debate, for it is important to present a united front in the public second reading.
Following the general debate, all the provisions set out in the bill may be considered individually. As a rule, however, the plenary moves directly to a vote on the bill as a whole.
Any Member of the German Bundestag may table motions for amendments, which are then dealt with immediately in the plenary. If the plenary adopts amendments, the new version of the bill must first be printed and distributed. However, this procedure may be abbreviated with the consent of two thirds of the Members present. It is then possible for the third reading to begin immediately.
Voting during the third reading
Another debate is only held during the third reading if this is requested by a parliamentary group or at least five percent of the Members of the German Bundestag.
Motions for amendments may no longer be tabled by individual Members at this stage. It is now only possible for one of the parliamentary groups or five percent of the Members of the German Bundestag to table such motions. Furthermore, they may only be tabled on amendments adopted during the second reading.
The final vote is held at the end of the third reading. When the President of the German Bundestag asks for the votes in favour of the bill, votes against and abstentions, the Members respond by rising from their seats.
Once a bill has gained the necessary majority in the plenary of the Bundestag, it is transmitted to the Bundesrat as an act.
Consent of the Bundesrat
It is through the Bundesrat that the Länder are involved in the shaping of every piece of legislation. In this respect, the Bundesrat’s rights to participate in the legislative process are precisely defined.
The Bundesrat may not make amendments to an act adopted by the Bundestag. However, if it does not give its consent to an act, it may demand that the Mediation Committee be convened. The Mediation Committee consists of an equal number of Members of the German Bundestag and members of the Bundesrat.
For some bills, the consent of the Bundesrat is a compulsory requirement. These include, for example, acts that affect the finances and administrative competencies of the Länder.
In the case of bills to which the Bundesrat may lodge an objection, the Bundestag may put an act into force even if no agreement has been reached in the Mediation Committee. However, this requires another vote in which the Bundestag passes the bill by an absolute majority.
Entry into force
Once a bill has been approved by the Bundestag and the Bundesrat, it has to go through a number of further stages before it can enter into force.
An act that has been adopted is first printed and transmitted to the Federal Chancellor and the competent federal minister, who countersign it.
The Federal President then receives the act for signing into law. He or she examines whether the act has been adopted in accordance with the constitution and is free of evident material contraventions of the Basic Law. Once these checks have been carried out, the Federal President signs the act and orders that it be published in the Federal Law Gazette.
With this, the act has been promulgated. Should no specific date be mentioned in the act for its entry into force, it automatically becomes effective as of the 14th day following its publication in the Federal Law Gazette.