Laws are the rules of play for living together in our diverse society

Statute books
State, federal and European politics: laws are passed at many levels. (© Focke Strangmann)

We all have different interests and needs. In order to reconcile these differences as much as possible, we need rules so that we can live together harmoniously. These rules must be acceptable and reasonable for everyone. We encounter these rules as laws in our everyday life, without even always realising: on the road, in school, at university or in traffic. Virtually every aspect of our society is governed by laws. This creates security and transparency.

Legal regulations exist at many different levels: laws govern the legal relationships between individual members of society, between members of society and the government, between states and the federation and ultimately between sovereign states.

On the one hand, laws limit our behaviour through their many different prohibitions and imperatives. On the other hand, it is these legal provisions that protect our individual rights, including with regard to the state. In this way, the legal system is intended to balance out any friction between the rights of the individual and the needs of the community.

Legislative powers

Legislation is one of the most fundamental responsibilities of Parliament. The Niedersächsischer Landtag is the State Parliament of Lower Saxony. It passes the laws that apply in the state of Lower Saxony. The state of Lower Saxony is, however, also part of the Federal Republic of Germany. The state parliaments and the federal parliament (Bundestag) therefore have different responsibilities when it comes to legislation. As a general rule: Individual German states can pass legislation unless German Basic Law explicitly assigns the relevant powers to the federal government. This is set out in Article 70 of the German Basic Law. The State Parliament does not have any say in matters which exclusively concern the federal government. These include, for example, foreign policy, defence or currency and finance.

The State Parliament of Lower Saxony has its own legislative powers in the following areas (this list is not exhaustive):

  • State and municipal constitutional law
  • Public safety and order (police law)
  • School and university law
  • Further education
  •  Administrative procedures and organisation
  • Protection of historic monuments
  •  Conservation, water and waste law to supplement or complement federal law
  • Civil service law to supplement federal law
  • Building regulations law
  •  Areas of law governing the professions

In our federal system, there are also some special forms of legislation. The so-called ‘Divergence Law’ allows German states to diverge from certain administrative regulations of the federal government (Article 72 Para. 3 Basic Law). This power of the German states applies to broad sections of environmental protection as well as the law on university admission and degrees. In addition, the federal government has powers to pass statutory orders on points which the German states can also legislate (Article 80 Para. 4 Basic Law).

The way responsibility for other legislative powers is divided between the federal government and the German states is very complex. As already explained, it can basically be assumed that the 16 German states are responsible for legislation, unless stated otherwise in the constitution: in general a distinction can be made between the exclusive legislative powers of the federal government (Article 71 and 73 Basic Law) and the concurrent legislative powers of the federal government (Article 72 and 74 Basic Law).

When it comes to exclusive legislative power, the German states only have legislative power if this has been expressly awarded by a federal law. In the case of concurrent legislative power, German states can pass their own laws, insofar as the federal government has not exercised its right to legislate. A precise list of the relevant legislative powers can be found in the Basic Law from Article 70. Another important principle in this respect: all laws passed by the German states themselves only apply to that particular state. Only laws passed by the federal government are binding for all 16 German states.

In addition to the federal German level, there is another level: the European one. The Federal Republic of Germany is part of the European Union (EU) – and this affects the powers of the State Parliament of Lower Saxony. The State Parliament passes laws to assimilate and implement EU laws and directives.

All laws are voted on in the plenary session of the State Parliament.
All laws are voted on in the plenary session of the State Parliament. (© Focke Strangmann)
Proposed legislation is debated in detail in the committees.
Proposed legislation is debated in detail in the committees. (© Focke Strangmann)
The flags say it all: policies are formulated in a single system at various levels.
The flags say it all: policies are formulated in a single system at various levels. (© Tom Figiel)

The path from idea to law

It takes considerable time for a policy idea to become enshrined in law. And rightly so: the intensive debate on a draft bill in the plenary session as well as in expert committees ensures quality, while the laborious legislative process means that a range of opinions and interests can be accounted for – so that in the end the most effective law possible is adopted. The various stages on the long path from idea to law are explained below.