With the dissolution of the German Confederation in 1866 and the founding of the German Empire (Deutsches Reich) in 1871, the Reichstag was established as the German parliament in Berlin. Two decades later, the current parliament building was erected. The Reichstag delegates were elected by direct and equal male suffrage (and not the three-class electoral system prevailing in Prussia until 1918). The Reichstag did not participate in the appointment of the Chancellor until the parliamentary reforms of October 1918. After the Revolution of November 1918 and the establishment of the Weimar Constitution, women were given the right to vote for (and serve in) the Reichstag, and the parliament could use the no-confidence vote to force the chancellor or any cabinet member to resign. In March 1933, one month after the Reichstag fire, parliament ceded its powers to the Federal Government of Chancellor Adolf Hitler by passing the infamous Enabling act of 1933. Afterward it met only rarely to unanimously rubber-stamp the decisions of the government. It was last convened on 26 April 1942.
With the new constitution of 1949, the Bundestag was established as the new (West) German parliament. Because West Berlin was not officially under the jurisdiction of the Constitution and because of the Cold War, the Bundestag met in Bonn in several different buildings, including (provisionally) a former water works facility. In addition, citizens of West Berlin were unable to vote in elections to the Bundestag, and were instead represented by 20 non-voting delegates, indirectly elected by the city's House of Representatives.
The former Reichstag building housed a history exhibition (Fragen an die deutsche Geschichte) and served occasionally as a conference center. The Reichstag building was also occasionally used as a venue for sittings of the Bundestag and its committees and the Bundesversammlung, the body which elects the German Federal President. However the Soviets harshly protested against the use of the Reichstag building by institutions of the Federal Republic of Germany and tried to disturb the sittings by flying supersonic jets close to the building.
Since 1999, the German parliament has again assembled in Berlin in its original Reichstag building, which dates from the 1890s and underwent a significant renovation under the lead of British architect Sir Norman Foster.
In 2005, a small aircraft crashed close to the German parliament. It was then decided to ban private air traffic over Central Berlin.
Although most legislation is initiated by the executive branch, the Bundestag considers the legislative function its most important responsibility, concentrating much of its energy on assessing and amending the government's legislative program. The committees (see below) play a prominent role in this process. Plenary sessions provide a forum for members to engage in public debate on legislative issues before them, but they tend to be well attended only when significant legislation is being considered.
The Bundestag members are the only federal officials directly elected by the public; the Bundestag in turn elects the Chancellor and, in addition, exercises oversight of the executive branch on issues of both substantive policy and routine administration. This check on executive power can be employed through binding legislation, public debates on government policy, investigations, and direct questioning of the chancellor or cabinet officials. For example, the Bundestag can conduct a question hour (Fragestunde), in which a government representative responds to a previously submitted written question from a member. Members can ask related questions during the question hour. The questions can concern anything from a major policy issue to a specific constituent's problem. Use of the question hour has increased markedly over the past forty years, with more than 20,000 questions being posed during the 1987-90 term. Understandably, the opposition parties are active in exercising the parliamentary right to scrutinize government actions.
One striking difference when comparing the Bundestag with the U.S. Congress is the lack of time spent on serving constituents in Germany. In part, that difference results from the fact that only 50 percent of Bundestag deputies are directly elected to represent a specific geographic district; the other half are elected as party representatives (see below). The political parties are thus of great importance in Germany's electoral system, and many voters tend not to see the candidates as autonomous political personalities but rather as agents of the party. A practical constraint on the expansion of constituent service is the limited personal staff of Bundestag deputies. Despite these constraints especially those deputies that are elected directly normally try to keep close contact with their constituents and to help them with their problems, particularly when they are related to federal policies or agencies.
Constituent service does also take place in the form of the Petition Committee. In 2004, the Petition Committee received over 18,000 complaints from citizens and was able to negotiate a mutually satisfactory solution to more than half of them.
Members serve four-year terms; elections are held every four years, or earlier in the relatively rare case that the Bundestag is being dissolved prematurely by the president. The Bundestag can be dissolved by the president on the recommendation of the chancellor if the latter has lost a vote of confidence in the Bundestag. This has happened three times as of 2005: 1972 under Chancellor Willy Brandt, 1982 under Chancellor Helmut Kohl and 2005 under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.
All candidates must be at least eighteen years old; there are no term limits. The election uses the MMP electoral system, a hybrid of the first-past-the-post election system and party-list proportional representation. In addition, the Bundestag has a minimum threshold of either 5% of the national party vote or three (directly elected) constituency representatives for a party to gain additional representation through the system of proportional representation.
Thus, small (and often extremist) minority parties cannot easily enter the Bundestag and prevent the formation of stable majority governments as they could under the Weimar constitution. Since 1961, only two new parties (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen and Die Linke) have entered the Bundestag.
The additional member system results in a varying number of seats; since the 2005 elections, there have been 614 seats. The distribution of the seats is calculated by the Largest remainder method. The additional seats are distributed to ensure that the combined total of direct and additional seats is proportional to the vote; this is calculated separately for each state. Sometimes parties win more seats directly than what their proportional share would entitle them to — these are known as overhang seats. Unlike the situation in some German state parliaments, overhang seats are not compensated in the Bundestag.
Accordingly, each voter has two votes in the elections to the Bundestag. The first vote (first-past-the-post election system), allowing voters to elect their local representatives to the Bundestag, decides which candidates are sent to Parliament from the constituencies.
The second vote (party-list proportional representation) is cast for a party list. And it is this second vote that determines the relative strengths of the parties represented in the Bundestag.
At least 598 Members of the Bundestag are elected in this way. In addition to this, there are certain circumstances in which some candidates win what are known as overhang seats when the seats are being distributed.
The 598 seats are distributed among the parties that have gained more than 5% of the second votes or at least 3 direct mandates. Each of these parties is allocated seats in the Bundestag in proportion to the number of votes it has received (Largest remainder method).
When the total number of mandates gained by a party has been determined, they are distributed between the Land lists. The distribution of the seats of that party to the 16 Lands is proportional to that party's second vote results in the Lands (Largest remainder method). The first of the mandates allocated to each Land go to the candidates who have won direct mandates in that Land. The rest are assigned in order to the candidates on the Land list put forward before the election.
Overhang seat: If a party has gained more direct mandates in a Land than it is entitled to according to the results of the second vote, it does not forfeit these mandates because all directly elected candidates are guaranteed a seat in the Bundestag.
|+||CDU and CSU:||223||(36.6%)||including 4 overhang seats|
|+||SPD:||222||(36.2%)||including 9 overhang seats|
|+||Independents/No parliamentary group:||2||(0.3%)|
|Historic seat distribution in the German Bundestag (at the beginning of each session)|
|Bundestag||Session||Seats||CDU/CSU||SPD||FDP|| Alliance '90 /|
|The Left2||German Party||Others|
|16th Bundestag||since 2005||614||226||222||61||51||54||–||–|
For detailed information on particular sessions of the Bundestag, please refer to the List of German Bundestage.
|Presidents of the Bundestag|
|Name||Party||Beginning of term||End of term||Length of term|
|1||Erich Köhler* (1892–1958)||CDU||7 September 1949||18 October 1950||1 year 1 month 11 days|
|2||Hermann Ehlers** (1904–1954)||CDU||19 October 1950||29 October 1954||4 years 10 days|
|3||Eugen Gerstenmaier*** (1906–1986)||CDU||16 November 1954||31 January 1969||14 years 2 months 15 days|
|4||Kai-Uwe von Hassel (1913–1997)||CDU||5 February 1969||13 December 1972||3 years 10 months 8 days|
|5||Annemarie Renger† (1919-2008)||SPD||13 December 1972||14 December 1976||4 years 1 day|
|6||Karl Carstens§ (1914–1992)||CDU||14 December 1976||31 May 1979||2 years 5 months 17 days|
|7||Richard Stücklen (1916–2002)||CSU||31 May 1979||29 March 1983||3 years 9 months 29 days|
|8||Rainer Barzel*** (1924–2006)||CDU||29 March 1983||25 October 1984||1 year 6 months 26 days|
|9||Philipp Jenninger*** (b. 1932)||CDU||5 November 1984||11 November 1988||4 years 6 days|
|10||Rita Süssmuth (b. 1937)||CDU||25 November 1988||26 October 1998||9 years 11 months 1 day|
|11||Wolfgang Thierse (b. 1943)||SPD||26 October 1998||18 October 2005||6 years 11 months 22 days|
|12||Norbert Lammert (b. 1948)||CDU||18 October 2005|
The most important organizational structures within the Bundestag are parliamentary groups (Fraktionen; sing. Fraktion), which are formed by political parties represented in the chamber which have gained more than 5% of the total votes; CDU and CSU have always formed a single united Fraktion. The size of a party's Fraktion determines the extent of its representation on legislative committees, the time slots allotted for speaking, the number of committee chairs it can hold, and its representation in executive bodies of the Bundestag. The Fraktionen, not the members, receive the bulk of government funding for legislative and administrative activities.
The leadership of each Fraktion consists of a parliamentary party leader, several deputy leaders, and an executive committee. The leadership's major responsibilities are to represent the Fraktion, enforce party discipline, and orchestrate the party's parliamentary activities. The members of each Fraktion are distributed among working groups focused on specific policy-related topics such as social policy, economics, and foreign policy. The Fraktion meets every Tuesday afternoon in the weeks in which the Bundestag is in session to consider legislation before the Bundestag and formulate the party's position on it.
Parties which do not fulfill the criterion for being a Fraktion but which have at least three seats by direct elections (i.e. which have at least three MPs representing a certain electoral district) in the Bundestag can be granted the status of a group of the Bundestag. This applied to the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) from 1990-1998. This status entails some privileges which are in general less than those of a Fraktion. In the current Bundestag, there are no such groups (the PDS only had two MPs in parliament until 2005 and was thus not even considered a group anymore; the party has now returned to the Bundestag with full Fraktion status).
The Bundestag's executive bodies include the Council of Elders and the Presidium. The council consists of the Bundestag leadership, together with the most senior representatives of each Fraktion, with the number of these representatives tied to the strength of the party in the chamber. The council is the coordination hub, determining the daily legislative agenda and assigning committee chairpersons based on party representation. The council also serves as an important forum for interparty negotiations on specific legislation and procedural issues. The Presidium is responsible for the routine administration of the Bundestag, including its clerical and research activities. It consists of the chamber's president (usually elected from the largest Fraktion) and vice presidents (one from each Fraktion).
Most of the legislative work in the Bundestag is the product of standing committees, which exist largely unchanged throughout one legislative period. The number of committees approximates the number of federal ministries, and the titles of each are roughly similar (e.g., defense, agriculture, and labor). Between 1987 and 1990, the term of the eleventh Bundestag, there were twenty-one standing committees. The distribution of committee chairs and the membership of each committee reflect the relative strength of the various parties in the chamber. In the eleventh Bundestag, the CDU/CSU chaired eleven committees, the SPD eight, the FDP one, and the environmentalist party, the Greens (Die Grünen), one. Members of the opposition party can chair a significant number of standing committees. These committees have either a small staff or no staff at all.