Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

Political systems of nations: Germany

merkelbeer.JPGAs the dysfunctions of our political system have become a more prevalent theme on this blog, I've gotten a large number of requests for a series exploring the political systems of other countries. How England runs its health-care system is a lot better understood than how England passed the law that created its health-care system, even though the latter is arguably more important for our purposes.

Dylan Matthews has begun writing a series that will explore different world legislatures. Each installment will focus on a different nation's system, outlining the basics but paying special attention to procedural roadblocks to passing legislation and the power of the leadership and minority. Last week, he looked at France. Before that, Britain. This week? Welcome to Germany. Here's Dylan.

The basics

Germany's federal legislature consists of a 622-member unicameral parliament called the Bundestag and a 69-member council of ministers representing Germany's sixteen states, known as the Bundesrat. Unlike the U.S. Senate, the Bundesrat does not equally represent the states, which vary widely in population. All states are guaranteed three members, but larger states may have up to six. However, this still advantages smaller states; the largest state, North Rhine-Westphalia, has 17.9 million people and six seats in the Bundesrat (2,983,333 people per member), whereas the smallest, Bremen, has 660,000 people and three seats (220,000 people per member).

All that said, while Bremen has almost fourteen times as much representation in the Bundesrat as North Rhine-Westphalia, this still pales in comparison to the California/Wyoming divide in the U.S. Senate, with Wyoming having almost 68 times as much representation as California.

Germany's government consists of a chancellor and his or her cabinet. The chancellor is elected by a majority vote of the Bundestag after being nominated by the president of Germany – a purely ceremonial office – for the position. Traditionally, the president will nominate the leader of the largest party in the Bundestag, who will either have a majority or, more likely, will have arranged a coalition with other parties which will then support the chancellor-to-be in the Bundestag's vote.

While the chancellor is a member of the Bundestag, candidates for chancellor, who lead their parties in Bundestag elections, are generally minister-presidents (governors) of German states, and only join the Bundestag upon victory; Angela Merkel, the current chancellor, is the first since 1966 to not have served in state government. In this way, Germany resembles the U.S. in preferring local leaders (minister-presidents, governors) to lead the nation, which makes sense given that they both have stronger federal systems than many other countries.


The Bundestag is elected in two votes. At least 299 of its members are elected in local districts, and another 299 are elected in statewide elections in which voters select a party list rather than a specific candidate. These seats are between the 16 states according to population, a distribution that is legally required to change regularly to ensure proportionality (unlike, sigh, the U.S. Senate). Parties are allocated seats in the second type of election according to the percentage of the vote they receive in each state. This way, both specific candidates and the parties they represent have to appeal to each state.

While the party-list system may be seen as strengthening the central party, candidates are chosen at a local level without overbearing federal party interference. The local district candidates are chosen by what would be in the U.S. ward or precinct-level activists at grass-roots delegate assemblies in the district, while state conventions pick the state party list. While there is some interference from the federal party in the latter process, Duke's Helmut Kitschelt says the state parties are allowed to act with relative autonomy. Compared with the complete control given to parties in the French and British systems, Germany comes closest to the level of involvement allowed in the U.S. primary system, and is quite similar to party assembly processes used for deciding primaries in states such as Minnesota. That said, Kitschelt stresses that "voters do not elect candidates for their district service, but as national party representatives promising the delivery of certain collective goods."

Unlike any of the countries Politics of Nations has profiled to date, Germany has a robust multiparty system. Partly due to proportional representation, it is exceedingly difficult for the CDU or SPD to secure outright majorities for themselves, and so must rely on coalition partners, who are given cabinet positions, to form a government. For example, the CDU is currently in a coalition with its longtime ally, the libertarian Free Democratic Party (FDP), whose leader, Guido Westerwelle, serves as foreign minister. Before that, a "grand coalition" of the CDU and SPD governed. Before that, the SPD and the Green Party were in power.

These permutations illustrate how the coalition system can pull a government in different directions. The Greens and the FDP pull the SPD and CDU to their ideological base, while grand coalitions force compromise between the major parties. Imagine if a more environmentally focused Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Club for Growth wing of the Republicans formed third parties who demanded concessions and committee chairmanships in exchange for caucusing with the Democrats or GOP, and you start to get the idea.

Coalitions with a fifth party in the Bundestag, the Left, have traditionally been taboo, as the Left used to be the Socialist Unity Party, the old Communist party in East Germany. However, experts say that this wariness is waning in light of successful SPD-Left coalitions at the state level, such as the one governing Berlin.

Members of the Bundesrat from each state are chosen by the state government, and can include members of the state cabinet, including the minister-president. Thus, the state government generally directs the state's votes in the Bundesrat, and indeed states are required to vote as a bloc. In cases of state coalition governments, a lack of agreement on Bundesrat votes can occur, resulting in abstention. The comparison is limited, but this is somewhat like if, in addition to their regular duties, U.S. governors cast their states' Senate votes. If nothing else, it prepares minister-presidents for national politics more than the duties of U.S. governors do.

How a bill becomes law

Bills are generally written by technical experts in government ministries, and adapted from initiatives articulated during the campaign by the winning party. The party's control over the top level of each ministries allows them to use the ministry to work out the bill's specific. If instead of turning first to Congress, Obama had asked accountants and economists in the Health & Human Services department to write a health-care bill, he'd be following the German model.

Bills are first considered in the Bundesrat, which has absolute veto power over bills concerning state expenditures, which, considering that the states run much of the German welfare state, are numerous – almost half of all bills, according to Gerhard Lehmbruch, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Konstanz. Even with bills that do not concern state policies, the Bundesrat can force a Vermittlungsausschuss – the German equivalent of a Congressional conference committee – though it cannot sink the version of the bill upon which the Bundestag decides.

In the Bundesrat, committees composed of the state bureaucrats – who would execute the bill should it use state ministries, as many do – draw up recommendations to make the bill easier for states to implement, and then send these recommendations and the bill to the Bundestag.

After an introduction before the whole Bundestag, the bill is sent to a committee for debate. Unlike in the U.S. Congress, Bundestag committee chairmanships are allocated by proportional representation, so members of each party control some committees. The chairman of the budgetary committee, for example, is always chosen by the largest opposition party. Most of the debate over bills happens within committees, whose party breakdowns are proportional to that of the Bundestag as a whole, regardless of which party is chairing it.

Once passed out of committee, the whole Bundestag debates the bill and votes first on each section in it, and then on the bill as a whole. However, it is very rare for the whole chamber to reject a bill that a committee has endorsed. Once the Bundestag has passed the bill, it goes back to the Bundesrat for final passage. If the Bundesrat has major objections, it will force a Vermittlungsausschuss (again, a conference committee), which will be binding if the bill relates to state policies. Neither the chancellor nor the president can veto legislation.

Despite the opposition's control of certain chairmanships, experts stress that opposition parties have very limited power to kill or obstruct the government's agenda. Jutta Helm, a Germany specialist at Western Illinois University, says that while the chairmanships give the opposition some control over bills' composition, "they cannot kill a bill or delay it for very long." "There are no filibuster or any other parliamentary delay tactics," Philip Manow of the University of Heidelberg elaborates. "Voting cohesion is VERY high, so the parliamentary parties supporting the government vote to 99.99999 percent in favor of the government bills."

Reform efforts

Most reform efforts center on recalibrating Germany's federal system. The periodic mismatch between parties controlling the Bundestag and the Bundesrat, and the fact that state elections occur between federal elections (meaning the Bundesrat's composition is changing mid-government) has lead to gridlock. Major initiatives – like the tax reforms proposed by the CDU government in the 1990s and, indeed, reforms to the federal process proposed by the SDP government in the 2000s – have failed in the Bundesrat, and fear of losing state-level elections has lead chancellors to be more hesitant about offering legislation that would upset the Bundesrat.

In 2006, a trade was enacted in which states received more power to determine civil servant salaries, environmental regulation and other policies, in exchange for reducing the number of bills which the Bundesrat must approve. The change – the largest to the German constitution ("The Basic Law") since its drafting in 1949 – is new enough that its effects are hard to evaluate. A second round of changes will focus on financial issues, and is expected to limit government borrowing while stopping short of requiring a balanced budget.


Germany is, in many ways, the advanced democracy most similar to the U.S. in government structure. Both have strong federal systems and a stronger-than-usual upper house meant to reinforce state power. However, the German system take the federal purpose of its upper house more seriously than the U.S. does, and thus offers some avenues for potential reform.

For one thing, the U.S. could switch to having senators be appointed by governors, with governors having the power to recall them, rather than electing them. While less democratic, this allows more real input on issues relevant to the states. Further, the proportionality of the Bundesrat serves as a reminder that there's a middle ground between abolition of the Senate and maintaining its current composition. While constitutionally complicated, the U.S. could theoretically grant more Senate seats to larger states without doing away with the institution as a whole. Finally, limiting the Senate's power to state-related issues would be similarly difficult, but would restore the institution to its intended purpose as a assurance that local concerns are met.

The German system of proportional representation could also serve as a model, and indeed could be adopted by the House of Representatives without a constitutional amendment. While the House is fairly proportional as is, the German system would make it almost perfectly so, while not sacrificing the territorial connection between representatives and their constituents. On the other hand, proportional representation would allow multiple parties in the House, which could make a mess out of the committee assignment process and require lengthy negotiations before a leadership is even in place.


Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index: 8.0 out of 10. Tied for 14th with Ireland; ahead of the U.S. at 19.

The Economist Democracy Index, 2008: 8.82 out of 10. 13th place; ahead of the U.S. at 18th. On "functioning of government," Germany also bests the U.S., 8.57 to 7.86.

NationMaster Tax Incidence Ranking: 37.9% of GDP. 10th place; ahead of the U.S. at 17th (29.6% of GDP).

Heritage Foundation Index of Economic Freedom: 71.1 out of 100. 23rd place; behind the U.S. at 8th (78.0). 122,656 constituents per national legislator on average. Below the U.S. average of 547,715 constituents per legislator.

Photo credit: By Thomas Haentzschel/Associated Press

By Ezra Klein  |  March 1, 2010; 1:06 PM ET
Categories:  The Politics of Nations  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Lunch break
Next: Pelosi's math


Actually, the German mixed-member proportional system could offer a potential way of reforming the Senate. Each state would continue to get a single senator (so you maintain the constitution's requirement of equal voting representation per state), but you'd also elect the other half of the Senate via national or regional party-lists.

The biggest roadblocks to this are the fact that there is no constitutional provision for electing parties rather than candidates, and the fact that putting cross-state electoral systems in place could be difficult, as nearly all U.S. election law occurs at the state and local level.

Posted by: Isa8686 | March 1, 2010 1:37 PM | Report abuse

At lunch today, I read a French newspaper citing Matthews' piece from last week, albeit in a unique manner. There is a movement in France (and in the UK) seeking to make the legislatures of those countries function more like the American Senate and House: the Matthews' piece was used in the French newspaper to highlight perceived defects in the current French legislative system (which, interestingly, Matthews considers positive).

The grass is always greener in the neighbor's yard, I suppose.

Posted by: rmgregory | March 1, 2010 1:58 PM | Report abuse

It should be emphasized that, not only does the German system of ensuring "perfect" proportional representation work so damn well (see for links to some details), but it works a LOT better than the other larger European countries (esp. UK), which often get parliaments with blocs whose proportions are very different from the vote tallies.

I'd like to see New Zealand in this series.

Posted by: neversaylie | March 1, 2010 2:04 PM | Report abuse

I think you would still run into issues with the constitution here. It says not state shall be denied equal suffrage in the Senate. Adding members that are not directly tied to individual states would probably run afoul of this.

I think we should simply amend the constitution to say that the Senate can only delay the signing of a bill by the President if the bill has been signed by the House. This makes no changes to the equal suffrage of states thereby circumventing the requirement for unanimity among states to change Senate representation. Thus the Senate would effectively operate as a House of Lords (which it certainly seems to act like now, especially with Senator Bunning and his special elevator).

Posted by: scudderw | March 1, 2010 4:18 PM | Report abuse

I'd just like to say what an awesome series this is. Please continue it to cover as many countries as applicable, long after the US health care debate is over.

Posted by: tyronen | March 1, 2010 5:07 PM | Report abuse

The ¨President of Germany – a purely ceremonial office¨: not quite. As with the British monarch, the office surely does have reserve reponsibilities to keep the state running when the constitutional procedures hit a submerged rock. Though this is far more likely to happen in the shambolic British system than the tidy German one, designed by impartial Platonic Guardians (aka the victorious Allies after WW II).

The FDP is not a ¨libertarian¨ party in the American Ayn Rand nutcase sense. It´s a liberal party in the classic Victorian sense of being for small government and individual rights. ¨Neo-liberal¨ would fit better, though the FDP is milquetoast by Thatcher´s standards.

Posted by: JamesWimberley | March 1, 2010 7:21 PM | Report abuse

I think one of the biggest challenges in terms of reform is the way we view the U.S. Constitution as a sacred document, as the essence of America, and not merely as a practical way of setting out how political power is to be structured in our society. Arguments that the Senate is archaic, unfair, grossly ineffective, and unbefitting a modern liberal democracy just won't fly--after all, it's "what the Founders wanted" or "the American way." And so nothing will happen.

Posted by: daw3 | March 2, 2010 6:48 PM | Report abuse

"While the chancellor is a member of the Bundestag, candidates for chancellor, who lead their parties in Bundestag elections, are generally minister-presidents (governors) of German states, and only join the Bundestag upon victory"

The interesting part is that there is a high degree of permeability between the different levels of government. A state politician running for a federal office doesn't have to gamble everything on that election and can keep the state level office in case of defeat at the federal level. This is often not the case in the US, where an unsuccessful run for president often marks the end of a political career.

Also, permeability goes bot ways. For example, Gerhard Schroeder was a member of Bundestag from 1980 to 1986, then joined the Landtag of Lower Saxony, became minister president in 1990, and then became federal chancellor in 1998. Such a meandering career isn't strictly impossible in the US but it seems unusual. A consequence is that state and federal politics is quite interconnected in Germany. The Bundesrat also forces state leaders to take federal responsibility.

Posted by: carbonneutral | March 8, 2010 5:40 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company