By Jennifer Allison
On Monday, September 21, the afternoon session of the 2015 IALL Annual Course focused on the Mediation Committee of the Bundestag and Bundesrat.
First, we heard a lecture on this topic at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin by Claus Dieter Koggel. Mr. Koggel is an administrative officer (Ministerialrat in der Sekretariat) for the Bundesrat, one of the two houses of the German Parliament.
Mr. Koggel discussed the history and work of the Mediation Committee (Vermittlungsausschuss), which is a constitutionally-mandated body (established under Article 77 of the Basic Law) that provides a forum for resolving conflicts that arise during the legislative process between the Bundesrat and the other parliamentary house, the Bundestag.
The Mediation Committee is comprised of 16 members of each house. Often these members are experienced parliamentarians with a wide range of knowledge and experience, and they are valued for their ability to think independently while also respecting the positions of their respective political parties.
Under the German Parliament’s legislative process, bills are first considered in the Bundesrat, whose membership consists of members that represent each of the sixteen German states (Länder). After a bill has been passed in the Bundesrat, it is sent to the Bundestag, which then passes its own version and sends it back to the Bundesrat. At that point, if the Bundesrat refuses to pass the Bundestag’s version of the bill, the Mediation Committee is convened to attempt to work out the differences and produce a single, passable version of the bill that can be enacted into law.
Mediation Committee meetings are strictly confidential: the only people allowed to be present during them are the members of the committee, two lawyers, and a stenographer. In addition, if a majority of the membership agrees to it, expert witnesses can be admitted to give testimony.
Once Committee members agree to a compromised version of the bill, it is published immediately online and introduced to both houses for another vote.
The frequency with which the Mediation Committee has been required to convene in it relatively recent history has varied, depending largely on whether the government was headed by the opposition party to that which held the majority in the Bundesrat .
During one session particularly contentious session of Parliament in the past, the Committee was convened for 100 out of the 400 bills considered. That particular Committee enjoyed an 88% success rate, as only 12 bills of the 100 they considered failed to pass after the Committee’s deliberations.
The current parliament only recently convened the Committee for the first time, despite being two years into its session, as they have made a greater attempt to compromise on their own before attempting mediation.
After Mr. Koggel’s lecture, IALL attendees visited the Bundesrat building in person. We were treated to a tour from a very informative and enthusiastic member of the Bundesrat’s administrative staff. She showed us the plenary chamber, where the Bundesrat meetings take place, and discussed the finer points of the plenary procedure.
Following this, we were taken to the Mediation Committee’s meeting room, where were once again met by Mr. Koggel. He took great care to point out certain interesting and useful features of the room, such as the power window shades, which were installed to prevent the prying eyes and long-range camera lenses of the media in adjoining buildings from eavesdropping on the compromises that were taking place during the secret Committee sessions.
Mr. Koggel pointed out during both of his presentations that the Mediation Committee has been the recipient of both praise and criticism in Germany. While it has been lauded as an innovated and positive way to resolve legislative conflicts and arrive at a compromise, it has also been characterized as “a mysterious dark room of legislation.”
Perhaps both of these are true. But it is firmly established as a component of the legislative process, and in addition to its constitutional mandate, the Committee is also influenced by established best practices, parliamentary law, and the judicial decisions of the Federal Constitutional Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht).
In the U.S., so many battles between Republicans and Democrats in Congress end up being played out in the media, and politicians often appear to be more motivated by scoring points with voters in upcoming elections than by achieving legislative success.
It struck me during the program that maybe this Mediation Committee would be a valuable import for the U.S. Congress to consider, so much so that I ended up tweeting about it. However, I have to admit that I’m skeptical that an organization like this could ever be considered, let alone work, in our government.