The Legislative Branch of the Federal Republic of Germany: Bundestag and the Bundesrat

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  • 0:02 The German Legislature
  • 0:32 History
  • 1:28 Bundestag: Composition
  • 2:44 Bundestag: Functions
  • 4:42 Bundesrat
  • 5:28 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we'll explore the legislative branch of the Federal Republic of Germany. A bicameral institution, the Bundestag and Bundesrat pass German legislation and even elect its de facto head of state.

The German Legislature

Everyone likes to feel like their voice is being heard. Whether it is something as small as a family deciding what to have for dinner, or as big as a country deciding a contested civil rights issue, everyone likes to know that their opinion, whether it's through actually voicing that opinion or through casting a vote, is being considered. In many Western governments there are representative bodies which are designed to represent the voices and opinions of a country's entire citizenry, and Germany is no different. In Germany, the representative bodies are known as the Bundestag and the Bundesrat.


Though the German Bundestag has had various iterations throughout Germany's history, its current configuration was born in 1949, after the Allied countries allowed West Germany to form its own government for the first time since the end of World War II. With Germany and its traditional capital, Berlin, divided between communist east and capitalist west, the German Bundestag began meeting in Bonn.

The Bundestag helped draft the Basic Law of Germany in the spring and summer of 1949, a document which set out the framework for the new German government, serving the same purpose as our U.S. Constitution. In September, the body met for the first time as a constituent assembly after West Germany's first post-war popular elections. Following the reunification of East and West Germany in 1990, the Bundestag was reconfigured to incorporate representatives from the formerly communist eastern states. In addition, the body relocated to Berlin, where it continues to sit today.

Bundestag: Composition

The Bundestag is Germany's Parliament which represents the voices of all Germans in the federal government. As such, there are a guaranteed 598 representatives in the Bundestag, half of which are elected directly by the people, while the other half is elected indirectly according to proportional voting lists. Each German over the age of 18 casts two votes in the Bundestag elections, one for a candidate in a local district, and another for a party's voting list in their region.

To stop many small or regionally specific parties from seating a candidate or two in the Bundestag, any party who wishes to seat a member from the proportional representation half is required to win at least 5% of the vote in the region. Though the Bundestag is designed for 598 members, there are often more when all is said and done! This is due to a complex system of additional seating, called 'balance seats,' which are allocated to ensure that each region and party has the correct number of seats in the Bundestag to most closely represent its share of the voting.

No single party is allowed to have a majority in the Bundestag, according to Germany's Basic Law. As such, a coalition of parties is often required to form a government and elect a chancellor of the German government from the ranks of the Bundestag. Coalitions are often formed after extended negotiations between several of the most populous parties.

Bundestag: Functions

The Bundestag, once elected, has several responsibilities, the first of which was just briefly mentioned: electing a chancellor. The chancellor, although a member of the Bundestag, is the de facto head of state of the German government. The position is similar to that of a prime minister, such as those in Great Britain or Canada, and indeed, the position was modeled on the British position when the Bundestag wrote Germany's Basic Law! Though in theory the chancellor can be anyone, practically speaking the chancellor is one of the leading figures of the party which receives the most seats in the Bundestag following a federal election.

The chancellor often takes his or her seat only after protracted negotiations which divvy up government responsibilities and ministries between the parties of the ruling coalition. Once these things are settled, the Bundestag holds a vote which elects the chancellor by a simple majority. After all the negotiating, though, this vote is generally only a formality. The Bundestag's relationship with the chancellor does not end there. Throughout the chancellor's time in office, he or she is continually beholden to the Bundestag who can remove him or her with a vote of no confidence. Though these rarely occur in Germany, a vote of no confidence removes the chancellor from office and calls for new elections.

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