The Federal Republic of Germany was formed in the wake of one of the most infamous dictatorships in history – the Third Reich. That dictatorship was made possible when leaders in the Weimar Republic effectively eliminated legislative oversight of the Executive Branch. Without such oversight, Hitler acted quickly to consolidate his power and limit civil liberties, leading to the death of millions.
Given this history, it is not surprising that a key focus of the German post-war constitution was ensuring sufficient and ongoing oversight of the Executive Branch. The Bundestag – which is analogous to the United States House of Representatives – exercises this oversight power. As is stated in its public relations guide, Facts: The Bundestag at a glance, the Bundestag “exercises an important power of scrutiny over the Government. No Chancellor or government minister can escape this scrutiny.” Specifically,
The executive branch is “required to keep the Bundestag regularly informed of its plans and intentions.”
The Bundestag also has the right to appoint committees of inquiry, and it is required to do so if one quarter of its members request it. The role of these committees is to “investigate possible abuses in government and administration and possible misconduct on the part of politicians. “
The committees of inquiry can order the executive branch to submit files, and call government representatives as witnesses.
Other parliamentary groups can also demand written information on particular issues, and these can lead to “parliamentary debates in which the Government is required to present its case and answer questions.”
Even individual members “can submit written questions to the Government, and government representatives are required to give direct answers to those questions” at question and answer sessions with ministers at scheduled times.
Germany is not the only country that has experienced a struggle between its democracy and a leader who resists oversight. The book How Democracies Die, details multiple instances of democracies in both Europe and South America that were undermined and diminished by autocratic leaders who rejected legislative oversight and denied the legitimacy of their political opponents. It is not uncommon for an autocratic leader to dismiss oversight efforts as subversive, criminal, disloyal, or opposed to constitutional order. Legislative oversight is not, however, a departure from our constitutional order. Legislative oversight is one of the foundations of a democratic government.
How robust is our democracy? That depends on us. As the authors of How Democracies Die point out, “Democratic institutions depend crucially on the willingness of governing parties to defend them – even against their own leaders.” That means speaking up for democratic values and democratic institutions. Critical thinking, independent judgment, a willingness to review information from many different sources, the ability to defuse appeals to hate and fear, and dialogue across partisan lines both by citizens and parties, are all important tools for strengthening our democracy. If you care about your freedom and your democracy, use them, and request that your elected representatives do so as well.