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SWITZERLAND : COUNCIL OF STATES



Context:

The Council of States (in German Ständerat, in Italian Consiglio degli Stati) is the Higher Chamber of the Swiss Parliament. It was established by the Federal Constitution of 1848. It is the result of an institutional compromise between «centralisers», who wanted to give the new Federal State a unicameral Parliament, and «federalists» who were attached to the former Tagsatzung (the Swiss Diet), in which each Canton was represented on an equal basis by ambassadors with limited powers. It led to the creation of a Chamber offering an egalitarian representation to the Cantons, but whose members vote freely without consulting cantonal governments.

I - COMPOSITION

The Council of States has 46 members who represent the Swiss Cantons. The Cantons of Obwald, Nidwald, Basel-City, Basel-Country, Appenzell Outer Rhodes and Appenzell Inner Rhodes - former Cantons which split up into two half-Cantons - shall elect one Senator each; the other Cantons shall elect two Senators.

II - ELECTORAL SYSTEM

The Constitution stipulates that representatives are elected by the people at the direct suffrage according to the proportional system but, as far as the Higher Chamber is concerned, it only indicates that Cantons themselves shall decree the rules applicable to the election of their representatives at the Council of States.

In practice, the Cantons have all chosen the direct majority list ballot system, with the exception of the Canton of Jura, which opted for the direct proportional ballot system. However, the practical modalities of the majority list ballot system shall vary from one Canton to the other.

The Cantonal law regulates the period of term in office, the election date, as well as the date when elected people take their posts. In practice, all the Cantons have opted for a 4-year period, the same as the period of term in office in the Lower Chamber. Moreover, in many Cantons, elections in the Higher Chamber take place at the same time as the elections in the National Council. The date at which elected representatives from the various Cantons take their posts is also synchronic. Henceforth, only the two members of the Council of States in the Zug Canton and the member for the half-Canton of Appenzell Inner Rhodes are elected according to a different calendar.

Apart from these two specific cases, the last renewal of the whole Higher Chamber goes back to October/November 2007.

The term of office of a member of the Council of States is not compatible with that of a member of the Federal Council and of the National Council, as well as with the functions of federal judges, federal civil servants, and ministers of religion.

III - SESSIONS SYSTEM

The National Council and the Council of States meet as of right for ordinary sessions. Four ordinary sessions, each lasting three weeks, take place every year.

An additional «special» session may be held if the volume of business cannot be dealt with in the ordinary sessions: each Council may decide independently whether it needs to hold a special session.

In addition, one-quarter of the members of either Council or the Federal Council may request that a special parliamentary session be convened.

IV - RELATIONSHIP WITH THE OTHER CHAMBER AND THE EXECUTIVE BRANCH

A - LEGISLATIVE POWER

The Swiss Constitution sets up an egalitarian bicameralism, given that federal bills shall be voted in the same terms by both chambers, without having one point of view's prevailing on the other.

1) Legislative initiative

The paragraph 1 of Article 160 of the Federal Constitution stipulates that any member of the Federal Assembly, any parliamentary group, any parliamentary committee, as well as any Canton may submit an initiative to the Federal Assembly (at the federal level, the popular initiative can only deal with constitutional provisions).

Officially, the initiative may take various forms at the Swiss Parliament. A parliamentarian (or a group of parliamentarians) may submit a private member's bill completely written, which is relatively rare. It is also possible to table a motion requiring the Federal Council to elaborate a draft bill. If the two Councils decide so, the Federal Council shall accomplish this task. The third possibility is the postulate: this form of application requires the Federal Council to determine if a draft bill or decree must be presented. A postulate does not require the approval of the second chamber to be sent on to the Government.

2) Right to amendment

The Council of States has the right to amendment, like the National Council.

3) Ordinary legislative procedure

Draft bills from the Federal Council are transmitted to either chamber of the Federal Parliament. The Speakers of the assemblies determine whether a given bill will be examined first by the National Council and then by the Council of States or vice versa. If they do not agree, they draw lots to know which assembly will be first referred to. It would be the same for cantonal initiatives.

Parliamentary and cantonal initiatives are submitted to a preliminary examination to determine whether they should be processed.

Texts from the Government and, among other initiatives, those which have gone through the stage of preliminary examination are sent for further consideration by committees, and then submitted to the plenary assembly. The debate in session comprises three stages:

- the «introductory part» is a general discussion followed by a deliberation to decide if it is appropriate to move to the detailed consideration of the text;

- the discussion of each article deals with the text proposed by the committee; it includes the consideration and the vote of amendments;

- the final vote on the whole text.

The text is therefore sent to the second Council, whether the first Chamber rejected it (by refusing the «introductory part») or adopted it. The second Council examines it according to the same procedure as the first one. If it does not vote it in the same terms, the text is sent back to the first Chamber.

The procedure continues this way as long as the two assemblies have not adopted the texts in strictly identical terms.

To limit the number of shuttles, a conciliation procedure was adopted in 1902: after three discussions in each Council, a meeting of conciliation is called involving 13 members from each chamber. If the meeting achieves a compromise, the text is submitted to both assemblies, which may accept it or reject it. If one of the two chambers rejects it, the draft bill is defeated.

In the event of divergence between the two Councils about the «introductory part», it is necessary that one of them rejects it twice for the text to be defeated once and for all. In the event of divergence between the two Councils, the law provides for a decree about the partial validity or nullity of a popular initiative; budget or its additional parts.

If each Council adopts the same text, it is then examined by the Drafting Committee, a joint committee for both Councils, which carries out formal corrections.

The text is then put to the final vote: the two Councils must give their decision for the last time, in order to confirm or invalidate their previous vote. In case it is rejected by one of the two Councils, the text is defeated once and for all.

All the federal bills can be submitted to referendum at the request of 50,000 electors or of eight Cantons. In practice, the most important bills are ratified by the Swiss people.

3) Specific legislative procedure

a) Amending the Constitution

In the constitutional field, the Swiss people also have the right to initiative. Constitutional amendments are necessarily submitted to referendum, after being adopted by both Councils, according to the ordinary legislative procedure.

b) Ratification of treaties

A referendum is necessary for bills related to the ratification of treaties, when they deal with joining an organisation of collective security or a supranational community.

c) Emergency

A federal bill that must come into force without any delay may be declared urgent and come immediately into force with a decision taken at the majority of members of each Council. Its validity shall be limited in time.

B - SUPERVISORY POWER

The two councils have the same supervisory powers, like in the legislative field.

1) Nomination of the Federal Council

The 7 members of the Federal Council (executive branch of the Federation) are nominated for 4 years by the Federal Assembly (National Council and Council of States), during a joint discussion, and chosen amongst the Swiss citizens eligible for the National Council.

The President of the Confederation and the Vice president of the Federal Council are nominated for 1 year by the Federal Assembly, among the members of the Council.

2) Supervision of the Federal Council

In pursuance of Article 169 of the Constitution, «the Federal Assembly's general supervision duties consist of overseeing the Federal Council and the federal administration, Federal Courts, and other bodies or persons assigned to carry out federal duties». Article 170 stipulates that «the Federal Assembly should see to it that the efficiency of the measures taken by the Confederation is evaluated». For that purpose, the Council of States has two instruments at its disposal.

Interpellations give the Federal Council the responsibility of informing the Council of States on matters relating to foreign or domestic policy, which involve the Confederation. The Federal Council can resolve on further discussion.

Questions give the Federal Council the responsibility of providing information on matters relating to foreign or domestic policy, which involve the Confederation. The Federal Council replies with written answers to the questions that shall be written and signed.

V - SPECIAL ARRANGEMENTS

A- IN THE FIELD OF JUSTICE

Members and deputies of the Federal Court are appointed by the Federal Assembly, which shall see to it that the three official languages of the Confederation are represented.

B- RELATIONSHIP WITH CANTONS

The Federal Assembly sees to it that the relations between the Confederation and the Cantons are maintained. It protects the Cantonal Constitutions, and approves the conventions that Cantons wish to conclude between themselves as well as with foreign countries, when the Federal Council or a Canton complains.

C - IN THE FIELD OF DEFENCE

The Federal Assembly elects the General (in chief) of the Swiss Army.

Updated : December 2007