Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.
German Federal Government
Everyone has their own opinions on the role of government. Some people like big government, and some people like small government. However, what everyone can agree on is that without at least some government, things can get really messy really quickly. The government of each country has been crafted over years - and in some cases, even centuries! In this lesson, we will briefly explore the federal government of Germany and its branches and important offices.
Though there has been an area of central Europe which was known roughly as the German lands for centuries, Germany itself is a relatively young state. The German Empire was not declared until 1871, and Germany was again divided in two for nearly a half-century in the middle of the 20th century. The German government, as we know it today, first took shape in one of those halves: in West Germany after World War II.
The Basic Law of Germany, Germany's founding constitutional document, was written in 1949 by West German politicians with the permission of the occupying Allied powers. The Basic Law went into effect later that same year, and it remains the basis of German government today. In fact, when East Germany and West Germany were reunited in 1990, the former communist state of East Germany wholly adopted all of the provisions of the Basic Law and began the arduous process of reforming state institutions to accord with the Basic Law.
The Basic Law of Germany declares Germany to be a representative democracy with a three-branch government. The first of these branches is the executive branch. The executive branch is largely made up of two main posts: the president and the chancellor.
Despite the name being the same, the president of Germany is far less powerful than our own. Elected every five years by a special body, the president is largely a ceremonial position, charged with greeting important figures and performing official duties. Though the president does sign every German bill into law, the only time he's allowed to change or veto such laws is if he or she finds them in direct conflict with constitutional law.
Instead, most of the power in the German executive branch resides in the position of chancellor. The chancellor is a position modeled closely on the British prime minister and as such, has many of the same duties and characteristics of that position. The chancellor, for example, is elected from the German representative assembly, the Bundestag. The chancellor is usually a leading member of the party that wins the most seats in the elections to the Bundestag. After being chosen, the chancellor is the de facto head of state of the German government and sets the rules and general agenda for the German legislature during his or her time in office. In addition, he or she is the chief negotiator of German foreign policy and assumes Germany's seat on important international organizations, such as the European Council.
The legislative branch in Germany is made up of two bodies: the Bundestag and the Bundesrat. The Bundestag is the lower house of the German legislative branch, but it is by far the most powerful. It is made up of at least 598 members, half of which are elected directly by electoral district, while the other half are elected proportionally according to party candidate lists. I say 'at least' because there are never only 598 members; the German Bundestag usually adds members here and there to ensure that the total number of delegates aligns as accurately as possible with the election results.
The Bundestag spends most of its time passing, amending, and creating German law. It also holds an important power over the chancellor: the vote of no confidence. If a vote of no confidence passes, the chancellor is removed from office immediately and new elections are held. Though this rarely occurs, it is a symbol of the legislative supremacy of the people over the executive branch in Germany.
The Bundesrat is the upper house of the German legislative branch and is far less powerful than the Bundestag. Made up of delegates appointed by the 16 regional governments of Germany, the Bundesrat holds many of the same lawmaking powers that the Bundestag holds. However, the Bundesrat is only allowed to legislate on roughly half of all legislation that passes through the German government: those bills or laws that deal with changes to existing law or increase German government spending. In addition, in the case of a disagreement between the Bundestag and Bundesrat, the Bundestag always wins out.
The third and final branch of government in Germany is the judicial branch. The courts in Germany are divided in terms of scope and severity of crime. For example, different courts handle tax law than handle criminal cases. Additionally, within these disciplines, cases with different prospective sentences are handled by different courts. In all cases, there's a regional and federal appeals system similar to what we have in the United States.
However, the most important court of the judicial branch is the Federal Constitutional Court. The Federal Constitutional Court is required to hear all cases and appeals made to it that either require an interpretation of Germany's Basic Law or propose a major change to the founding document. The Court must review any case referred to it by the chancellor, president, Bundestag, Bundesrat, or government ministers. In addition, the Constitutional Court reviews a selection of the numerous appeals made to it each year by private citizens. The 16-judge panel is the final arbiter of all constitutional and legal matters in Germany.
The German government is a three branch government much like our own, but the particulars of each position differ slightly. For example, Germany's president is nothing like the U.S. president; rather, he or she is a largely ceremonial figure who generally rubber stamps German law made elsewhere. Most of the real executive power in Germany resides in the position of chancellor, the de facto head of state elected from the Bundestag.
In turn, the Bundestag is the most powerful body of the legislative branch, as it creates, amends, and passes German law, and even holds the power to remove the chancellor from office. The upper house, the Bundesrat, also helps make German law, but it is far less powerful and subservient to the Bundestag. Germany's judicial branch possesses many courts that are divided by scope and severity of case, though its most important institution is the Federal Constitutional Court: the highest arbiter of all constitutional matters in Germany.
After this lesson is completed, you should be able to:
- Recognize the importance of the Basic Law of Germany
- Recall the three branches of the German government
- Describe the difference in duties between the president and the chancellor of the country
- Compare and contrast the roles of the Bundestag and Bundesrat in the legislative branch of government
- Explain what type of cases are heard by the Federal Constitutional Court
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