Any member of the National Council or the Council of States can submit a procedural request to introduce a new law, add a new provision to the Constitution, or have an existing law amended. They can also request the Federal Council or the Administration to provide a report or information.
In response to every procedural request, the Federal Council and the Administration have to conduct enquiries and issue an opinion before the matter can be discussed and decided on, first in the relevant committee and then in the council concerned.
Majority support is required to follow up on procedural requests: in the preliminary consultation committees, or in either or both councils. As procedural requests generally relate to politically controversial matters, however, there is no guarantee that a majority can be secured.
The members of parliament make good use of the parliamentary instruments at their disposal. In 1996, each member submitted an average of 3.6 procedural requests; in 2009 the number peaked at 9.4, falling slightly to 8 requests per member in 2011. In recent years the average has increased steadily; in 2019 a new maximum was reached, at 10.3 requests per member.
Council members can use a parliamentary initiative to propose that Parliament itself enact a law – either by formulating the idea or even drafting the law itself. Using a motion, council members can prompt the Federal Council into drafting legislation. A postulate is used to ask the Federal Council to examine whether a new law or decree should be drafted or measures taken, while an interpellation is a request to the Federal Council to provide information on significant domestic or international events.
Many people may be surprised to find the chambers of the National Council and Council of States half empty. By the time any proposal is debated in the councils, most of the parliamentary work has already been done, and many preliminary decisions have been taken. This is the committees’ job, as they conduct initial discussions on all items of business.
There are nine specialist committees, whose main task is to make a preliminary examination of legislative proposals. They are each responsible for a specific topic, such as transport, legal affairs, foreign affairs and social policy. In addition, there are the finance committees and the control committees, which oversee the federal finances and the activities of the Federal Council and the Administration. In specific cases, a parliamentary investigation committee can investigate certain procedures and areas.
In contrast to sessions of the National Council and Council of States, committee sessions are not open to the public: holding meetings in camera is thought to facilitate a more open discussion among members. However, after meetings, the committees inform the media of the outcome.
National Council committees comprise 25 members each, while those in the Council of States have 13 members. Their composition depends on the relative strengths of the parliamentary groups.