Laws are the rules of play for living together in our diverse society
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.
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.
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.
How it all begins
Bills for state laws can be tabled from within the State Parliament, by the state government or by popular petition. Campaigners submit the draft to the State Parliament administration, which publishes and distributes it as a parliamentary paper. In order to avoid snap decisions in legislation, the State Parliament always discusses each bill in two deliberation sessions. A third deliberation session is possible if a parliamentary group puts forward a motion for amendment. Most draft bills are tabled by the state government or the parliamentary groups.
Citizens fire the starting shot
Members of the State Parliament represent everyone in Lower Saxony. However, citizens do not have to wait for Parliament to table a draft bill: the constitution of Lower Saxony contains instruments of direct – or to use the technical term: plebiscitary – democracy. Citizens can start the legislative process themselves by way of popular petition. A popular petition, enshrined in Article 48 of the state constitution, specifically aims to pass, amend or abolish a state law. This does not include, for example, laws about the state budget; Parliament alone is responsible for this. A popular petition comes into being when it is supported by ten percent of the electorate of Lower Saxony — currently around 600,000 citizens. The state government decides whether the popular petition is valid; if in doubt, campaigners can appeal to the constitutional court.
Quality and participation take time
There are no shortcuts to an effective law – quality, careful deliberation and wide involvement take time. This is clear from just a quick glance at the various stages of the legislative process: a draft bill has to go through several deliberation sessions (readings) in the committees and in the plenary session of the State Parliament. In the committees, experts from each parliamentary group – MPs who specialise in the subject of the bill – work through all the details of the draft bill. The committee in question then presents its concrete recommended resolution to the State Parliament. Once the plenary session has debated the bill for a second - and in some cases even a third - time, the plenary session of the State Parliament then votes on it. The President of the State Parliament then enacts the law by signing it. The state’s prime minister publishes passed laws — or amendments — in the Law and Ordinance Gazette for Lower Saxony. They only come into force once they have been published.
First deliberation (reading) in the plenary session
Draft bills can be deliberated in the plenary session of the State Parliament for the first time once the subject of the deliberation has been put on the agenda of a plenary sitting. All of the parliamentary groups debate the matter in the Council of Elders roughly one week before the next plenary session. Why are new laws required in the first place? Has the underlying problem been correctly defined? What aspects need to be considered? The first deliberation in the plenary session is usually a very basic debate. At the end of this so-called general debate, delegates only decide on which committees the draft bill should be submitted to for further deliberation and which of them will be the committee in charge. Bills are basically allocated according to subject area: environmental protection issues go to the environment committee, while matters pertaining to the powers of the state police are referred to the committee on internal affairs, and so on. The President only submits these directly to a committee at the request of whoever tabled the bill – for example, when a law needs to be passed particularly urgently. In this case, instead of a deliberation in the plenary session, a public debate is held in the committee in charge.
Parliament’s ‘workshops’: committee debates
In the committees, politicians with the relevant specialist expertise discuss the proposed legislation in depth. These committees are the ‘workshops’ of Parliament, and most of the detailed work on the bill takes place here. When the committee finishes its work, it recommends a resolution as to whether Parliament should accept the bill as it is or with certain changes, reject it, or declare it complete. If several committees have been asked to deliberate the matter, the committee in charge recommends the resolution. Any suggestions made by representatives from the opposition parties can also be taken into account here. After all, there is much greater acceptance of majority decisions when the concerns of the minority are respected.
Second deliberation in the plenary session and vote
The second deliberation in the plenary session deals with the details of the draft bill, based on the recommendations from the committees. The President of the State Parliament calls out every individual part of the draft law that is to be discussed. At the end of the second deliberation, the plenary session can refer all or parts of the draft bill back to a committee. It will then debate it, recommend a new resolution, and then a third deliberation will follow in the plenary session. A third reading should take place in the interest of a rational debate, but if possible only in the case of motions for amendments. If the State Parliament does not refer the draft bill back to a committee again, MPs vote on the entire draft bill after the second deliberation session – and the law can be passed and published.
Influence at federal level
The state of Lower Saxony has a say in federal legislation through the Bundesrat, or Federal Council. Certain laws — those explicitly specified in the Basic Law because it is assumed that they concern the interests of the states – require the approval of the Bundesrat. These laws are known as laws requiring approval. In all other areas, the Bundesrat has at least the option to object through vetoes. The Bundesrat can also table its own bills and take a stand on bills of the Bundestag and the German federal government.
Lower Saxony is represented in the Bundesrat by six members. These six members are appointed to the Bundesrat by the state government and must vote unanimously there. The Bundesrat is, therefore, made up of representatives of the state governments, and not the state parliaments. The number of members per federal state is based on the population of that state.
Detailed information about federalism and the Bundesrat can be found on the Bundesrat website.