The Nationalrat (National Council), the lower house of parliament, exercises all of the powers usually associated with a national legislature. It has the power to remove the entire cabinet or individual members of it by a vote of no confidence. All legislation and treaties must be approved by the Nationalrat. Before a vote can take place, at least one-third of the Nationalrat's members must be present. A simple majority suffices for the passage of legislation. Sessions are public unless the deputies determine otherwise.
Deputies elect a president and second and third presidents from among their members to serve during the four-year legislative term. Party leaders who are members of their party's executive and of a parliamentary faction that serves as a liaison between parliament and a political party are most likely to be presidential candidates. The president and the third president belong to the same party, usually the party holding the most seats in the Nationalrat. The second president belongs to the other major party. Presidential duties include nominating employees of the Federal Chancellery, whose staff serves the three presidents. The three presidents preside over plenary sessions in two-hour shifts. They also join with the chairmen of the parliamentary factions to form the Presidial Conference, which directs the Nationalrat's activities and decides the time and agenda of plenary sessions and, to a lesser extent, the time and agenda of the committees. The Presidial Conference is one of the rare groups not affected by the custom of proportional representation. All parties holding seats in the Nationalrat are represented on the conference.
In 1993 the Nationalrat contained roughly fifteen committees in which legislative proposals are both prepared and examined and the results of parliamentary investigations considered. Each committee has various numbers of subcommittees assigned to deal with specific kinds of legislation. In addition to the committees, there are also the Main Committee and the Permanent Subcommittee, the members of which are elected at the start of each new legislative period. The Main Committee has responsibility for overseeing aspects of the state-run industries and for dispatching Austrian troops on international peacekeeping missions. It also participates in deciding the date for Nationalrat elections and setting rates for postal and telephone services. The president of the Nationalrat serves as chairman of the Main Committee. The Permanent Subcommittee plays a limited role because its main function is to fulfill the duties of the Main Committee in the case of the dissolution of the Nationalrat by the president.
Equally as important as the committees are the Klubs (factions), which all parties in the Nationalrat maintain. The factions usually have a leader and an executive committee, and they provide deputies with a behind-the-scenes setting to discuss political strategy with like-minded colleagues. Individuals elected as deputies to the Nationalrat automatically become members of their party's faction. Faction leaders assign deputies to committees and decide on the questions that are to be asked during debates and the priority for legislative initiatives.
In addition to the work of the committees, another important function of the Nationalrat is to question the government regularly on its activities and legislative proposals. One device frequently employed is an "interpellation," which summons for questioning before the Nationalrat a particular cabinet minister or government official. A minimum of twenty deputies is required to set an interpellation in motion. Questioning a government official is the prelude to a parliamentary debate on the issue.
A 1970 amendment to the election laws increased the number of Nationalrat seats from 165 to 183. Seats in the Nationalrat are divided among the country's nine provinces according to population. Deputies serve a four-year term and are elected according to constitutional and other federal laws. Candidates must be at least twenty years old on January 1 of the election year and must also be eligible to vote.
The Nationalrat has only one session per year, beginning no earlier than September 15 and ending no later than July 15. An extraordinary session of the Nationalrat can be convoked either by order of the federal president, by request of the cabinet, or by request of one-third of the deputies. Once a request has been made, the extraordinary session must commence within two weeks. After a parliamentary election, the newly elected Nationalrat must be convened within thirty days.
The Nationalrat can be dissolved either by presidential action or by itself. The president can dissolve the Nationalrat at the chancellor's request, but he is limited to dismissing it only once for the same reason. New elections must be held soon enough to enable the new parliament to convene within 100 days of the dissolution. The Nationalrat is empowered to dissolve itself by a simple majority vote.
During the Second Republic, membership of the Nationalrat has been heavily weighted toward men who come from white-collar professions. Changes in the sociological profile of the deputies have occurred slowly. The Nationalrat elected in November 1990 contained a record 22 percent of female deputies. Prior to this election, female deputies had never accounted for more than 15 percent of the total number of deputies. The average age of the deputies elected in 1990 was forty-six. Almost 40 percent of the deputies elected in 1990 were university graduates, and 25 percent were employees of political parties, politically oriented interest groups, or social welfare organizations.
The majority of legislative proposals originate in the executive. Legislation occasionally starts in the Nationalrat, but the close cooperation between the executive and the majority party in parliament makes such initiation unnecessary most of the time. During the Second Republic, governmental legislative proposals have outnumbered Nationalrat initiatives by three to one. Parliament's role in the legislative process is focused more on bringing to public attention the background of the government's legislative proposals and exposing any mistakes the government may have made. Opposition parties have the right to force the government to answer any questions about pending legislation.
Before a bill is introduced in parliament, it has already passed through an intensive process of examination. The government solicits comments from the various interest groups affected by the bill, especially the chambers of agriculture, commerce, and labor. During this stage, a bill frequently is modified to meet the objections of key interest groups and opposition parties in parliament. Changes to legislative proposals may also be made after a bill has been introduced in the Nationalrat, but the majority of changes are made before the bill is introduced officially. Bills are amended significantly by the parliament only 10 to 15 percent of the time.
By West European standards, the percentage of bills passed unanimously by the Austrian parliament is high. Unanimity prevailed anywhere between 38 and 49 percent of the time during the parliaments of the 1970s and 1980s. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, with the advent of the Greens in parliament and the increased power of the FPÖ, unanimity was on the decline.
As the complexity of the issues facing government has increased, so too has the importance of committees to the parliament's work. After a bill reaches the Nationalrat, it is assigned to a committee and frequently also to a subcommittee. Deputies typically spend twice as much time in committee hearings as in plenary sessions. The subcommittees hold even more hours of hearings than the full committees. Because of the unwieldy nature of plenary sessions, 80 percent of changes to government legislation occur in committee.
In 1975 the Nationalrat amended its procedures to give the opposition and smaller parties a greater role in the legislative process. Under the 1975 amendments, one-third of the deputies can request the Constitutional Court to review a law for constitutionality. Further, one-third of the deputies can request the government's accounting agency to conduct an audit of a government agency. These changes reflect the intensification of political competition that occurred in the Nationalrat after the long period of grand coalition governments between the two major parties ended in 1966. The ÖVP, as the major opposition party during the era of SPÖ rule (1970-83), led the drive for greater rights for minority parties.
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