The German Bundestag: The Heart of Democracy

The German Bundestag: The Heart of Democracy


The plenary chamber in
the Reichstag building is where the most important political
debates in Germany take place. Laws are made here, the
Federal Chancellor elected, ministers are sworn in and the
government held to account. Citizens have the opportunity to observe
the plenary sessions live as a visitor. Parliament is the heart of our democracy. My name is Brigitte Rubbel. I am one of 60 ushers in the German Bundestag, or to give us our official title:
plenary attendants. We are the silent helpers, ensuring
that plenary sittings run smoothly. The dress coat is our kind of trademark. And it is more than ‘just’ a uniform,
it reflects the dignity of Parliament. The work of the parliament mainly
takes place during sitting weeks. From Monday to Friday a fixed procedure is followed. In non-sitting weeks, the Members
mainly work in their constituencies. The central task of the Bundestag
is to pass legislation. It also scrutinises the work of the
government and approves the federal budget. The Bundestag determines the framework under
which the individual ministries operate. The Members are the elected
representatives of the people. With their votes, they decide who governs and
by what rules society in Germany is defined. The often controversial plenary debates reflect
the diversity of opinion in our country. In this spirit, I ask for approval and thank you for your
attention. Thank you. The President of the Bundestag represents the
Bundestag and therefore the legislature. One of his central and best-known duties
is conducting the sittings of the plenary. He is supported in this work by his
deputies, the Vice-Presidents. Like the President of the Bundestag, they are
elected for a period of one electoral term. Together, they form the Presidium
of the German Bundestag. The Presidium meets regularly to discuss matters
affecting the management of the Bundestag. During these meetings, the President of
the Bundestag and the Vice-Presidents ensure that the Bundestag’s Rules
of Procedure are respected. A debate is not planned in the second reading. We now come to the vote on departmental budget 19. In accordance with a cross-party agreement,
60 minutes have been allocated to this debate. Will the secretaries please go to their places. The proposal for referral is thus adopted. The President is further supported in
his duties by the Council of Elders, which is composed of 23 members. These are not necessarily the oldest members, but usually those with the
most parliamentary experience. The Council of Elders plays a very important
role in the course of plenary sessions. For example, it sets the dates of
sitting weeks well in advance, then agrees the plenary agenda on an ongoing basis. The Council of Elders is a forum where disputes
that have arisen are discussed and mediated. From up here you have the best
overview of the plenary chamber. The Members sit in front of us divided
into their parliamentary groups. Members from a specific party, or in the case of the CDU/CSU, two related
parties, form a parliamentary group. Here, the Members develop unified political opinions which the group then presents in Bundestag debates. The meetings of the parliamentary groups are
held at the beginning of the sitting week, and are where the groups define their
goals and strategies for the coming week. Most Members have their offices in Jakob Kaiser
Building, right next to the Reichstag Building. Jakob Kaiser was active as a Christian trade union
leader in the resistance against Hitler and worked on drafting the German Basic Law
in the Parliamentary Council of 1948-49. Each Member has employees who assist
them in carrying out their many tasks. The allocation of the offices changes
after each general election. Depending on the result, the parliamentary
groups are entitled to more or fewer offices. The connecting tunnels to the Reichstag
building ensure short commutes. People often think we’re
only here to serve water. But that’s the least of our duties. During plenary sittings we deliver
messages for the Members. Apart from the parliamentarians, only the
attendants are allowed in the plenary chamber, making us their most important link with the outside. Among its other functions, the Paul Löbe Building is where the German Bundestag’s 24
permanent committees meet. Paul Löbe was a member of the
Constituent National Assembly in 1919 and was President of the Reichstag from 1920 to 1932. As a member of the Parliamentary Council,
he was one of the fathers of the Basic Law. The glass facade of the main entrance also symbolizes
the political transparency of the Bundestag. Approximately 1,000 offices and more than 20
committee rooms are spread over eight floors. The actual detailed work is
carried out here by the Members. It is here where it the Bundestag as a
working parliament can be seen most clearly. This is where the parliamentary groups’
spokespeople come into their own. They discuss detailed questions before
a bill, for example, is adopted as a draft resolution for Parliament. The committee meetings are
increasingly open to the public and are broadcast by Parliament television. The work of the Committee on the Environment,
Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety is focused on the preservation of our natural resources. The committee deals with issues such as climate change, preservation of biodiversity,
more efficient use of resources and the comprehensive refurbishment
of buildings, amongst others. Labour and Social Affairs. These words cover important
policy areas such as pensions, labour market policy, unemployment benefits and
the inclusion of people with disabilities. The committee is one of the largest and ensures that the world of
work is accessible for everybody and that all generations receive a fair opportunity. A special position is occupied
by the Petitions Committee. Here, the Bundestag is very close to the people. The Petitions Committee receives
concerns and complaints from citizens, which are taken up by the Members. The Petitions Committee learns
first-hand how laws affect citizens and is thus able to gauge the mood among the population. The Parliamentary Commissioner for the
Armed Forces also receives petitions. He is responsible for parliamentary
oversight of the armed forces, upholds the basic rights of military personnel and reports to the Bundestag on the
internal state of the Federal Armed Forces. A footbridge over the River Spree connects
Paul Löbe Building with Marie-Elisabeth Lueders Building. Marie Elisabeth Lüders was one of the most important
politicians working in the area of social policy, and a leading representative of
the women’s movement in Germany. This building houses the Parliamentary
Documentation Division, among others. Here, the publicly available materials of the Bundestag
and the Bundesrat are catalogued and indexed before being made available
on the internet, for example. Policy briefings, analyses and expert opinions
contribute to parliamentary decision-making. These are provided by the Research Services, who in this way support the work of Members
in Parliament and in the constituencies. With 1.4 million volumes, the Bundestag library is one
of the largest parliamentary libraries in the world. The reading room offers a stunning view over the Spree to the Reichstag Building and
Paul Löbe Building with its Europasaal. The Bundestag’s Committee on the Affairs
of the European Union meets in this room. The committee plays a special role in the parliament’s involvement in
European policy and oversight of this. The Committee on EU Affairs is composed of
39 Members of the German Bundestag, as well as 16 German Members of the European Parliament. These MEPs are not entitled to vote, but
participate in the Committee’s deliberations. This ensures close cooperation between the
Bundestag and the European Parliament. After the committees’ detailed work, all
draft legislation and other projects, such as Bundeswehr missions
abroad, end up in plenary again. There, all Members debate these one
last time and then put them to a vote. Depending on the topic, there are
different forms of voting. In general, Members vote by
show of hands or standing up. If there are any doubts about the result, the so-called “Hammelsprung”, or
division of the assembly, is used. Here, Members first leave the plenary chamber and then they enter it again by
going through one of three doors, which are labeled “Yes”, “No”
or “Abstention”, respectively. Sometimes a recorded vote with
personal voting cards is necessary. Here, blue represents “Yes”,
red “No” and white “Abstention.” The minutes of plenary proceedings
document how every Member voted. One of the core functions of
parliament is government oversight. Plenary sittings begin with questions addressed to the
federal government on Wednesdays in sitting weeks and usually last until Friday afternoon. The Bundestag is the heart of our democracy. It is here that we find the focal point of political debate, here is the centre of political decision-making. Without a majority in the Bundestag, there is no government. The freely elected Members of the Bundestag
represent the citizens. They need to bring together the variety of opinions and
interests to form viable decision-making majorities. This requires dispute, passionate debate, along with
competition between individuals, but according to rules that apply to all. It also requires a willingness to compromise. Making concessions when it comes to one’s own opinion
in order to achieve a compromise, to enable a majority, is no weakness,
but rather a cardinal virtue of democracy. It is the requirement for moderation and sustainability. The Bundestag and its Members must stand the test of this, each day anew.

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