Bodies established to scrutinise the work of the government

Committees, commissions, commissioners

The Members of the German Bundestag have various opportunities to inform themselves about the plans and work of the government and articulate their own opinions in the plenary.

Furthermore, each electoral term the Bundestag also establishes a range of bodies with remits that encompass the control of the government. These are able to exert varying degrees of influence.

They include:

  • Permanent committees
  • Bodies established to scrutinise specific fields
  • Committees of inquiry

Permanent committees

On the whole, the permanent committees of the Bundestag are organised in such a way that each one is responsible for the remit of a particular federal ministry. They therefore deal with precisely defined areas of policy or activity.

The committees exercise their oversight function indirectly through their involvement in the adoption of legislation. However, they also have direct rights of scrutiny. For instance, they are expressly permitted to demand reports on current legislative projects from representatives of the relevant federal ministry and make recommendations. Indeed, they are able to take these steps without being requested to do so by the plenary.

The committees’ right to take up issues on their own authority has developed into an important instrument of parliamentary scrutiny.

Permanent committees with special status

Some of the permanent committees enjoy a special status as far as the oversight of the government is concerned. For instance, the principle task of the Committee on Foreign Affairs is the scrutiny of the government’s foreign policy.

Like the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces, the Defence Committee is provided for in the Basic Law in order to ensure oversight of the armed forces - and therefore the Federal Ministry of Defence as well. It even has the right to constitute itself as a committee of inquiry.

The Budget Committee is regarded as the most powerful committee because it plays a decisive role in the preparations for the approval of budgetary resources.

The special characteristic of the Committee on the Affairs of the European Union is the fact that it can exercise the rights of the Bundestag to deliver opinions on proposed EU legislation. The government has to coordinate its position with the Bundestag or the Committee before it takes part in the decision-making process on European legal acts.

Petitions Committee

The Petitions Committee, another permanent committee, also occupies a significant position. It enables the population to exert direct influence on the government. For the Basic Law states that every person has the right to address Parliament with requests or complaints in writing.

The President of the German Bundestag forwards all letters received from citizens to the Petitions Committee, which possesses special rights. It can, for example, require government agencies to submit their files and allow access to their facilities.

Even though the Petitions Committee has no right to issue instructions, its recommendations nevertheless carry great weight. Often, the mere fact that it is carrying out research into a problem is enough to produce a considerable effect.

Bodies established to exercise scrutiny in specific fields

The permanent institutions of the Bundestag also include bodies established to scrutinise specific fields of policy. They oversee defined areas of the government’s work.

The Parliamentary Oversight Panel oversees the activities of the Federation’s intelligence services. The G 10 Commission set up by the Panel is responsible for ensuring that the services comply with the statutory provisions concerning restrictions imposed on the privacy of letters, posts and telecommunications. Two other bodies oversee the work of the Central Office of the German Customs Investigation Service and measures to combat organised crime.

The bodies established to scrutinise specific fields are able to demand that the government provide them with information about the general activities of the services and agencies in question as well as operations of particular importance. The government must grant these bodies access to files, permit them to interview employees and facilitate visits to the services and agencies for the purposes of oversight.

Committees of inquiry

By contrast to the bodies discussed above, committees of inquiry are only set up to deal with topical issues. This requires a motion supported by at least 25 percent of the Members of the German Bundestag. Committees of inquiry are charged with examining and investigating political and bureaucratic misconduct in the government, the Bundestag and the administration.

The work of the committees of inquiry involves the gathering of evidence. A committee of inquiry may interview and swear in witnesses and expert witnesses, order that documents be presented to it and request executive assistance from courts and administrative authorities. At the end of the inquiry, a report is published and a debate held in the Bundestag.

As the subjects of these inquiries usually fall within the sphere of competence of the executive, committees of inquiry are, above all, an instrument for the selective scrutiny of the work of the government.