The Responsibilities of the Federal Council

In many countries Parliament has two chambers. The reasons for the existence of a second chamber differ: Some people hold that it improves the quality of legislation, while others see its function in the representation of certain interests. The idea is that a democratic system needs checks and balances. In Austria, this second chamber is the Federal Council.

The Composition of the Federal Council

Unlike the National Council the Federal Council is not elected by direct popular vote. Its members are delegated by the Provincial Diets in proportion to the relative strengths of the parties in the Diets. The number of members delegated by a Federal Province depends on the population figure of that Province. The most populous Province delegates twelve, the smallest at least three members.

When there is a change in the population of a Province, the number of seats in the Federal Council will change accordingly. Seats are reallocated every ten years. The Federal President passes a resolution determining the number of members to be delegated to the Federal Council by each Province. The total number of members is therefore variable.

Currently the Federal Council has 61 members. They are elected by the Provincial Diets for the duration of the legislative period of the Province concerned. The composition of the Federal Council may thus change after every Provincial Diet election.

Accordingly the Federal Council has no legislative period of its own but has been continuously in session since 1945.

The Federal Council's Right of Objection

The Federal Council shares the legislative power with the National Council. It can object to bills adopted by the National Council, but this is only a “suspensive” veto, since the National Council can overrule the Federal Council objection by repeating its previous decision (“overruling a veto”).

In some cases, however, the Federal Council has an ”absolute” veto. Matters that require the express approval of the Federal Council include:

  • Constitutional laws or clauses restricting the competences of the Provinces
  • Legal provisions affecting the Federal Council itself, 
  • State treaties that regulate matters falling within the autonomous sphere of competence of the Provinces.

The Federal Council has no say in certain legislative decisions of the National Council, in particular those which concern federal finances. Such matters are only brought to the notice of the Federal Council.

Legislative Initiatives and Resolutions of the Federal Council

The Federal Council or one third of its Members can address legislative initiatives to the National Council, which are subjected to the same legislative process as all other bills.

In addition, the Federal Council can address resolutions on political matters to the Federal Government. Members of the Federal Council can also put written or oral questions as well as urgent questions to the Federal Government. The Federal Council is entitled to receive information and state its position on EU matters and takes part in the parliamentary subsidiarity test procedure.