In the heart of Berlin
The Berlin House of Representatives stands near the site of the former Berlin Wall, and today finds itself in the center of the reunified city.
Together with the Martin Gropius Bau, the Topography of Terror, and the Bundesrat, it presents an arresting contrast to the flair of the new Potsdamer Platz.
The president directs and coordinates the work of the House of Representatives, assisted by the presidium and the Council of Elders, which he or she chairs
The parliament must convene for its constituent meeting, chaired by its oldest member, no later than six weeks after an election, in order to elect its president, its vice-presidents, and the additional members of the presidium and to lay down its rules of procedure. The president of the House of Representatives occupies a special position; with regard to protocol, he or she holds Berlin’s highest office. The president has the following responsibilities:
- Swear the Governing Mayor and the Senators into office,
- Oversee the business of the House of Representatives,
- Exercise proprietary and police powers over the building where the parliament holds its sessions,
- Represent the parliament,
- Convene and chair the meetings of the House of Representatives,
- Review all of the bills and interpellations intended for the parliament,
- Sign the laws that have been passed, and
- Head the parliament’s administration.
Along with the president, the presidium is comprised of two vice-presidents and a number of supporting members, who are nominated by the parliamentary groups. The Council of Elders assists the president with conducting the business of parliament, especially with preparing for plenary
meetings. The Council, which includes the president and his or her deputies, is not necessarily composed of the oldest members of parliament, but of members of the executive committees of the parliamentary groups and those with many years of experience. The Council of Elders meets behind closed doors every Tuesday before a plenary session. It does not have the power to pass resolutions; rather, it makes recommendations to the plenary assembly. However, since these proposals are drafted with the involvement of the parliamentary groups’ representatives, they are usually approved by the parliament.
The plenary assembly or session is a general meeting of all the members of the parliament, i.e., all those who have been elected to the House of Representatives
As a rule, plenary sessions take place every other Thursday. They usually begin at 10:00 a.m., although the parliament convenes earlier when Berlin’s state budget is on the agenda. The parliament’s key tasks include legislation, approving the budget, and electing and overseeing the state government. These are accomplished largely by the plenary assembly.
The opening of the plenary assembly by the president is a debate on a subject of current interest. The parliamentary groups or a group of at least ten members of parliament can propose topics for this debate. If there is a choice of several topics, a vote is taken at the beginning of the session.
The debate is followed by a 60 minutes question time, during which members of parliament – particularly from the opposition – address spontaneous questions to representatives of the Berlin Senate.
First or second readings of bills introduced either by the government or the parliament take place afterwards.
The parliament uses motions as a means to induce Berlin’s government to take action on particular issues. The Senate can also submit items of business for a vote when it believes that there is a need for a decision on an issue. These submissions are discussed in committees and then voted on by the plenary assembly.
Budget debates are of primary importance. After weeks of discussion in the parliament’s budget committee, the plenary assembly debates and passes the budget drafted by the Senate.
Committee deliberations form the “core” of the parliament’s work, since this is where the actual preparatory work is done
As a rule, the parliament sets up a permanent committee for each of the Senate’s areas of responsibility. The parliamentary groups appoint members with particular expertise in that area to the individual committees. Committee members debate the bills submitted by either the Senate or the parliament and referred to their committee by the plenary assembly. The committee reports to the plenary assembly with a recommendation for a decision on each item it has been asked to consider. However, the committee may also address issues within
its area of responsibility on its own initiative.
The Petitions Committee is an “advocate for citizens’ concerns.” Anyone who feels that he or she has been treated unfairly by some part of Berlin’s administration can file a complaint – also online – with the Petitions Committee with little formality. The Petitions Committee, with members from all of the parliamentary groups, will then investigate the charges. It has the right to monitor the activity of Berlin’s state agencies and institutions.
The House of Representatives can set up a temporary committee of inquiry to investigate problems, situations in dispute, or political scandals
Each committee of inquiry is set up to deal with just one particular subject of investigation. It is usually the opposition that petitions for the use of this powerful tool in the context of political conflict, with the aim of solving problems or monitoring the actions of the government in this area. The parliament chooses a committee chair and the other members of the committee, as well as their alternates. All of the parliamentary groups must be represented on the committee by at least one member.
The committee can call witnesses and experts and request state government files. With some exceptions, the meetings of committees of inquiry are open to the public. The committee is required to present its findings in a final report and/or interim reports to the House of Representatives.
Study commissions explore future developments in society
The parliament sets up study commissions in order to learn more before making major decisions affecting a particular policy or social area. A fourth of the parliament’s members can also unite in calling for a study commission to be convened. The commission’s task is to identify social changes and trends so the parliament can respond to these in its own initiatives. The parliament can appoint both its own members and experts outside the House of Representatives to sit on this commission. The study commission concludes its work with a final report submitted to the parliament.
The Constitution of Berlin gives the House of Representatives – the legislative branch – strong powers with regard to the Senate – the executive – in order to ensure that the rule of law is upheld
The members of the Berlin parliament view themselves as “part-time legislators” and often continue to pursue their original professions. Due to the members’ increasing workload within the parliament, however, the number of full-time legislators continues to grow. Certain public service positions are incompatible with a parliamentary seat and must be given up for as long as the member holds the seat.
The legislators’ most important tasks are:
- Electing the parliamentary president and the governing mayor
- Legislation for the federal state of Berlin
- Adopting the budget law
- Supervising the government
- Appointing the presidents of the highest state courts, the justices of the Constitutional Court, the president of the Court of Auditors, and the Commissioner for Data Protection
The members have various instruments at their disposal that, in particular, help them with the task of overseeing the work of the government:
- Minor interpellations, which every member of the parliament may address in writing to the Senate
- Oral parliamentary questions asked in the plenary assembly
- Major interpellations submitted by parliamentary groups
- The work done in the committees
Party discipline: Members of the parliament usually adhere to party discipline when voting in the plenary assembly and in committees, in order to bolster the political clout of their own parties. Occasionally, however, a member does not vote in line with his or her party for reasons of conscience.
In its emphasis on protective rights like
- immunity (criminal prosecution is permitted only with the parliament’s consent),
- indemnity (no prosecution for statements made or votes cast in the exercise of one’s office), and
- members’ right to refuse to give evidence,
the Constitution of Berlin emphasizes the importance of the autonomy of members of the House of Representatives.
The parliament’s members receive compensation for their work, in order to ensure their independence. Without this parliamentary pay, only the wealthy or those with high incomes could afford to hold office. As a result, the less affluent classes would not be represented in the parliament.
The parliamentary groups are the political “backbone” of parliament – they make efficient legislative work possible
Formation of parliamentary groups Since the parliament deals with so many policy areas, having to develop expertise in all of them would overwhelm the individual members. Those who belong to the same party thus join forces as a parliamentary group (called a “Fraktion” – a part of a whole). These groups must consist of at least the number of members required by law; this number and all other legal requirements are determined by the parliament’s rules of procedure and the law on parliamentary groups.
Executive committee of a parliamentary group Members of each parliamentary group are elected by their peers to serve as the group’s executive committee: the chair, deputy chair, and secretary. The executive
committee is responsible for organizing and setting the agenda for parliamentary group meetings.
Work of the parliamentary groups The parliamentary group sets the general direction for a given party’s parliamentary work, launches political initiatives, and drafts the motions and bills to be submitted to the legislature. The various positions on upcoming issues are discussed during the parliamentary group meetings before a group resolution determines the stance that will be taken for the group by the spokesperson responsible for the policy area in question. The parliamentary groups’ representatives are a permanent channel for communication with the presidium, the Council of Elders, and the committees, as well as with groups and institutions outside the legislature.
Constitution of Berlin, Article 40
(1) “An association of at least five percent of the minimum number of representatives laid down in the Constitution shall constitute a parliamentary group. Details shall be subject to the Rules of Procedure.”
(2) “The parliamentary groups shall carry out constitutional responsibilities by directly using their own rights and responsibilities as independent and autonomous bodies of Parliament in cooperation with Parliament, and in helping form the will of Parliament. They shall be entitled to adequate resources in this respect. Details concerning the legal position and organization, as well as the rights and responsibilities, of parliamentary groups shall be subject to law.”
Berlin’s constitution stipulates that new laws may be proposed by the Senate, the House of Representatives, or the public
Draft laws, or bills – whether from the government, the parliament, or the public (in the form of a petition for a referendum) – are submitted to the president of the House of Representatives.
Once the president has received a bill, the Council of Elders puts it on the agenda of one of the next few plenary meetings. The members receive a printed copy of this legislative proposal at least two days before the meeting.
In general, the legislature restricts itself to a discussion of basic issues in its first reading of a bill.
Referral to a committee
After the first reading, the bill is referred to the relevant committee for further deliberation, and the budget committee examines its potential financial consequences. The plenary assembly then receives a recommendation for a decision.
Every bill must be given at least two readings; in special cases, the president or the Senate
may request a third reading. The second reading is used to consider the individual sections and articles. Following deliberations, a vote is taken on each clause.
Once the voting on individual clauses has been concluded, a final vote is taken on the bill as a whole, which is adopted by a simple majority vote. Laws amending the constitution, however, require a two-thirds majority. The law must be signed by the president as soon as possible (i.e., without intentional delay).
Promulgation/Entry into force
The law is promulgated within two weeks by the governing mayor in the “Berlin Gazette of Laws and Ordinances.” If the law itself does not stipulate a date on which it is to take effect, it will enter into force automatically 14 days after being promulgated.
The services provided by the administration are vital to the smooth functioning of the House of Representatives
The parliament’s administration is headed by the president, who is represented in this capacity by the director of the House of Representatives. The administration’s three directorates do preliminary work and coordinate and support the work done by the House of Representatives.
General Administration (Directorate 1)
is responsible for building administration, security, and technical services.
Reference and Research Services (Directorate II)
assists the president, the parliamentary groups, and the committees by providing consulting services and reports on legal questions in general and questions of constitutional and parliamentary law in particular.
This directorate also includes the parliamentary library and the office for the documentation of parliamentary papers. These facilities are also open to the public.
Plenary Assembly and Committee Services (Directorate III)
provides support services to the plenary assembly and the committees. The staff is responsible for organizational and informational groundwork for the assembly and the committees.
Directorate III also includes the Plenary and Committee Transcript Division, which takes the minutes of the various meetings. The transcripts of the plenary sessions and committee meetings that are open to the public can be read in the library of the House of Representatives or on the Internet.
The media and protocol/public relations divisions report to the president’s office.
The media division acts as a liaison for the print media, radio, and television. It issues the president’s statements and the press information service, as well as other materials. The protocol and public relations division is responsible for, among other things, planning and holding events and receptions hosted by the House of Representatives. It helps to promote dialogue between the parliament and the people of Berlin and publishes the press summary and information brochures. The Visitors’ Service is also part of the public relations division.
Art and politics converge on many levels in the Berlin House of Representatives
Art plays an important role in defining the appearance of the parliament building – whether in the form of temporary exhibitions or in the gallery where portraits of Berlin’s honorary citizens are permanently on display.
Gallery of Honorary Citizens
Since 1808, the city of Berlin has bestowed the title of “honorary citizen” on individuals who have rendered outstanding services to the city. The portraits of some of these 116 men and women are displayed in the corridors to the right and left of the plenary chamber. The honorary citizens themselves choose the artists who will be making their portraits.
A competition with the theme of “Kunst-am-Bau” (art and construction) was held to choose the artist who would be responsible for the artistic design of the grand hall. Gerhard Richter won the competition, and his five abstract panels, entitled “Rot, Blau, Grün” (Red, Blue, Green), were placed in the sections of the north wall.
Gallery on the third floor
The works of the artist Karl Horst Hoedicke, “Nur in der City lärmen und klagen die Musen” (Only in the city do the muses clamor and lament), which came in second in the competition, so impressed the jury that they were put on display as a permanent loan in the gallery on the third floor. Opposite these are sandstone pedestals supporting bronze heads of former politicians of the Weimar Republic, parliamentary presidents, and governing mayors.
The Berlin painter Matthias Koeppel captured the historic fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 in the form of a triptych illustrating three consecutive scenes based on the many sketches he had made of this event himself.
A number of control mechanisms are in place to prevent fraud or abuse in Berlin’s elections
Elections to the Berlin House of Representatives are decentralized. The many volunteers working in the polling places on election day help to ensure that the election runs smoothly. For example, voter lists are double-checked to verify that each voter is actually registered in that district. Only then does he or she receive an official ballot, to be filled out alone – as a “secret ballot” – in the voting booth.
Since the borough assembly members are elected at the same time as the House of Representatives, election results are first recorded by the boroughs before being given to the state election officer, who then officially announces the outcome of the election for the House of Representatives.
In order to ensure that election results accurately reflect the will of the voters, all unclear ballots are evaluated after the election by borough election committees to determine their validity.
The Governing Mayor heads the Senate, Berlin’s state government
Election law in Berlin does not require parties to name a top candidate, but the parties have traditionally presented the public with their candidates for the highest office in the state government. This tendency corresponds to a growing trend towards the personalization of election campaigns in general: “The candidate is the message.”
As a result, once the parliament has been constituted, the top candidate of the party that won the election is usually elected by secret ballot to the office of governing mayor.
The parliament elects the governing mayor with a majority of the votes cast, after which the governing mayor forms the Senate.
The Governing Mayor
- represents Berlin,
- appoints and removes members of the Senate,
- proposes the number and scope of departments
- works with the Senate to determine the direction of government policy, and monitors adherence to this,
- chairs the Senate, casting the deciding vote when a Senate vote ends in a tie, and
- promulgates laws in the “Gesetz- und Verordnungsblatt für Berlin” (Berlin gazette of laws and ordinances).
The government of the federal state of Berlin is the Senate, consisting of the Governing Mayor and ten Senators
At the beginning of the legislative term, the governing mayor forms a Senate (equivalent to a cabinet). Each senator is appointed by the governing mayor; two of these are also his/her deputies (mayors). The senators do not have to be members of the parliament; the governing mayor is free to nominate candidates from outside the House of Representatives.
The Senate meets every Tuesday at the Berlin Town Hall, making its decisions public in the press conference that follows.