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Back to Parliamentary Oversight of the Executive Branch

Summary

Parliamentary control over the executive branch in Germany is exercised mainly through the establishment of committees and the right of the Parliament and its committees to summon and question members of the executive or to present them with formalized written requests.

I. General Overview

The main legislative body in Germany is the German Bundestag (Parliament).[1] As Germany is a federation, its sixteen states (Länder) participate in the legislative process through another constitutional organ, the German Bundesrat (Federal Council).[2] Besides engaging in the legislative process, the Parliament monitors and scrutinizes the executive branch and its work. The executive branch is made up of the Federal President[3] and the Federal Government (Cabinet),[4] which consists of the Federal Chancellor[5] and the Federal Ministers.[6] Even though the German Basic Law (Constitution) awards the Federal Chancellor a strong position, the legislature retains control over him or her throughout his or her tenure. With an absolute majority the legislature can elect a successor to the current Federal Chancellor and require the Federal President to dismiss the current Federal Chancellor through a vote of no confidence.[7]

Generally, in order to exercise its oversight function of the executive branch, the legislature must be informed about the work of the Federal Government. The legislative branch can either gather the information itself or require the Federal Government to provide the necessary information.

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II. Information Gathering by the Legislature

One important way in which the legislative branch acquires information is by forming permanent committees, committees of inquiry,[8] and a parliamentary control panel.[9] The Basic Law provides for the establishment of certain permanent committees,[10] but the Bundestag is free to establish other permanent committees, in general one per ministry. The establishment of a permanent committee might also be required by ordinary legislation, such as the Budget Committee.[11] In the current eighteenth legislative period, the legislature has formed a total of twenty-three permanent committees.[12]

In addition to the Defense Committee, parliamentary control with regard to defense policy is exercised by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces.[13]

The Bundestag also has a limited right to access records and databases that are in the custody of the Federal Government.[14]

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III. Information Provided by the Federal Government to the Legislature

In order to get information from the Federal Government, the Basic Law codifies a general right of the Bundestag and its committees to require by majority vote the presence of any member of the Federal Government at their public sessions.[15] The same right is provided for the Bundesrat.[16] If a federal minister does not comply with the summons, the Bundestag can enforce the request in the Federal Constitutional Court with a suit to define the extent of the rights and duties of a supreme federal body or of other parties vested with rights of their own by the Basic Law.[17]

In addition, minority groupings and individual members of the Bundestag can address formalized requests (interpellations) to the Government as a whole or to individual ministers.[18] A group representing at least 5% of the members of the Bundestag or a permanent group of Bundestag members from the same party who comprise at least 5% of the Bundestag (Fraktion)[19] has the right to pose written questions to the Government. The answers to these questions are discussed in a plenary session of the Parliament (Große Anfrage (major interpellation)).[20] Another option is a request to which the Government must provide a written answer within fourteen days, but the answer is not discussed in Parliament (Kleine Anfrage (minor  interpellation)).[21]  Furthermore, individual members of the Bundestag can address short oral or written inquiries to the Government.[22] Minority groups can also address the Government in a debate on current issues, known as the “Current Affairs Hour” (Aktuelle Stunde),[23] in which the federal ministers outline the topics from their last session that fall within their area of competency, followed by questions from members of Parliament. To enforce these rights, minority groups and individual members of the Bundestag can call on the Federal Constitutional Court.[24]

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IV. Recommended Sources for Further Research

In addition to those items cited in the footnotes, the following item is a useful research source:

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Prepared by Jenny Gesley
Foreign Law Specialist
August 2017


[1] GRUNDGESETZ FÜR DIE BUNDESREPUBLIK DEUTSCHLAND [GRUNDGESETZ] [GG] [BASIC LAW], May 23, 1949, BUNDESGESETZBLATT [BGBL.] [FEDERAL LAW GAZETTE] I at 1, arts. 38–49, art. 77, para. 1, http://www.gesetze-im-internet.de/gg/GG.pdf, unofficial English translation available at http://www.gesetze-im-internet.de/englisch_gg/basic_law_for_the_federal_republic_of_germany.pdf.

[2] Id. arts. 50–53.

[3]  Id. art. 54.

[4]  Id. art. 62.

[5]  Id. art. 63.

[6]  Id. art. 64.

[7]  Id. art. 67.

[8]  Id. art. 44, art. 45a, para. 2.

[9]  Id. art. 45d.

[10] The Basic Law provides for the establishment of a Committee on the Affairs of the European Union (art. 45), a Committee on Foreign Affairs (art. 45a), a Defense Committee (art. 45a), and a Petitions Committee (art. 45c).

[11] Geschäftsordnung des Deutschen Bundestages [BTGO] [Rules of Procedure of the Bundestag], June 25, 1980, BGBL. I at 1237, as amended, §§ 94–96, http://www.gesetze-im-internet.de/bundesrecht/btgo_1980/gesamt.pdf, English translation available at https://www.btg-bestellservice.de/pdf/80060000.pdf.

[12] Permament Committees, DEUTSCHER BUNDESTAG, http://www.bundestag.de/en/committees (last visited July 25, 2017).

[13] BASIC LAW art. 45b; Gesetz über den Wehrbeauftragten des Deutschen Bundestages] [WBeauftrG] [Act on the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces of the German Bundestag], June 16, 1982, BGBL. I at 677, as amended, § 1, http://www.gesetze-im-internet.de/bundesrecht/wehrbbtg/gesamt.pdf.

[14] This right is available only to certain Committees—for example, the Committee of Inquiry—according to art. 44, para. 2, sentence 1, and art. 45a, para. 2 of the Basic Law, and §§ 18, 34 of the Act on Committees of Inquiry [UNTERSUCHUNGSAUSSCHUSSGESETZ] [PUAG], June 19, 2001, BGBL. I at 1142, as amended, http://www.gesetze-im-internet.de/bundesrecht/puag/gesamt.pdf. It is also available to the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces, according to art. 45b of the Basic Law and § 3, no. 1, sentence 1 of the Act on the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces of the German Bundestag.

[15] BASIC LAW art. 43, para. 1; BTGO, supra note 11, § 42.

[16] BASIC LAW art. 53; Geschäftsordnung des Deutschen Bundesrates [BRGO] [Rules of Procedure of the Bundesrat], Nov. 26, 1993, BGBL. I at 2007, as amended, http://www.gesetze-im-internet.de/bundesrecht/brgo_1966/gesamt.pdf.

[17] BASIC LAW art. 93, para. 1, No. 1; Bundesverfassungsgerichtsgesetz [BVerfGG] [Act on the Federal Constitutional Court], Aug. 11, 1993, BGBL. I at 1473, as amended, § 13, no. 5 & § 63 et seq., http://www.gesetze-im-internet.de/bundesrecht/bverfgg/gesamt.pdf, English translation available at http://www.bundesverfassungsgericht.de/SharedDocs/Downloads/EN/Gesetze/BVerfGG.pdf?   blob=publicationFile&v=6.

[18] BASIC LAW art. 38, para. 1; BTGO, supra note 11, §§ 100–106; Richtlinien für die Fragestunde und für die schriftlichen Einzelfragen (Annex 4 der Geschäftsordnung des Deutschen Bundestages) [Guidelines for “Question Time” and for Written Individual Questions (Annex 4 to the Rules of Procedure of the German Bundestag)], June 25, 1980, BGBI. I at 1259, as amended, http://www.gesetze-im-internet.de/btgo1980anl_4/BTGO1980Anl_4.pdf; Richtlinien für Aussprachen zu Themen von allgemeinem aktuellen Interesse (Anlage 5 der Geschäftsordnung des Deutschen Bundestages) [Guidelines for the “Current Affairs Hour” (Annex 5 of the Rules of Procedure of the German Bundestag)], June 25, 1980, BGBL. I at 1260, as amended, http://www.gesetze-im-internet. de/btgo1980anl_5/BTGO1980Anl_5.pdf.

[19] BTGO, supra note 11, § 10.

[20] Id. §§ 100–103.

[21]  Id. §§ 104.

[22]  Id. § 105.

[23]  Id. § 106.

[24] BASIC LAW art. 93, para. 1, No. 1; Act on the Federal Constitutional Court § 13, no. 5 & § 63 et seq.