National Council Committees
Preliminary Deliberation of Items of Business
One principle of parliamentary procedure is that before decision on an item of business is taken in the Plenary, a preliminary deliberation of the subject in hand must have taken place in a committee. This is to ensure that competent Members of the National Council can discuss substantive issues in a restricted circle. They can also call in outside experts to advise them.
The final decision rests with the Plenary of the National Council, but it rarely deviates from the result achieved by the committee. This is, among other things, due to the fact that the composition of the committees in terms of parliamentary groups reflects, on a smaller scale, that of the Plenary. With a few exceptions, deliberations in committees are not open to the public.
Kinds of Committees
At the beginning of each legislative period the National Council elects one expert committee for each major field of interest, such as the Committee on Family Affairs, Constitutional Committee, Foreign Policy Committee or Health Committee. In addition, the National Council may at any time set up special committees for the preliminary deliberation on individual items of business of major importance.
This division of labour enables Members to acquire special expertise in the areas covered by the committees of which they are members and to act as opinion leaders on the matters in hand in their respective parliamentary groups.
Committees with Specific Remits
A second group of committees devote themselves to specific parliamentary tasks. Examples are the Incompatibility Committee, the Immunity Committee or the Main Committee. The latter, and its Sub-Committee especially set up for this purpose, are in charge of the National Council’s right of participation in European Union affairs. Two standing sub-committees of the Budget Committee play an important role in the National Council’s participation in the European Stability Mechanism (“Euro rescue package“). And several committees or standing sub-committees monitor the activities of the Government.
Committees may of their own accord move bills or resolutions connected with issues within their remit, to be deliberated by the Plenary.
To engage in preliminary deliberations on particularly extensive or difficult issues, committees may set up sub-committees, which will normally meet in camera to warrant confidentiality. They can also call in experts to advise them.
To probe into matters involving the political responsibility of members of the Federal Government and certain activities of the federal administrative authorities, the National Council can set up investigating committees. It has to do so if either the plenary so decides by majority vote or a quarter of the Members so demand. The idea behind these investigating committees is the democratic concept of checks and balances. The National Council should be in a position to check on the work of the Government. The subject to be investigated must be a specific event or process that occurred under the executive authority of the Federal Government and has been concluded in the past. Procedure in investigating committees is set out in special Rules of Procedure for Parliamentary Investigating Committees.
Special Committee under the Financial Constitution Act
There is also a special committee termed Standing Joint Committee under Section 9 of the Financial Constitution Act. It is a joint committee formed by Members of both the National Council and the Federal Council. It mediates in conflicts between the Federal Government and a Provincial Diet on the admissibility of new provincial or local taxes and rates.
When is the Public Admitted to Committee Sittings?
The President of the National Council refers reports of the Federal Government and its members to a committee for deliberation. Many committee deliberations on reports of this nature are final in the sense that they are not discussed by the Plenary of the National Council. For this reason the public is admitted to the debates of and voting on reports of the Government and its members. On such occasions sound and video recordings may be made.
The public also have access to deliberations in the Main Committee on European Union projects and to the General Debate or to the detailed discussion on a popular initiative in the presence of experts or other witnesses. By decision of a Commission of Enquiry parts of its sittings may be open to the public, while parliamentary hearings are usually open only to media representatives but not the general public.
The public is in all cases informed about the subject matters discussed in committees by the Parliamentary Correspondence, the media service of the Parliamentary Administration. Its staff attend all sittings and report extensively on them.