Switzerland’s Parliament or legislature consists of two chambers, which although they have equal powers are very different in their own way: the people’s representatives sit in the National Council, the large chamber, and the representatives of the cantons sit in the Council of States, the small chamber. When sitting together in joint session, they constitute the United Federal Assembly. The 246 members of Parliament represent the interests of the different language communities, political parties, world views and regions in Switzerland.
The 200 members of the National Council represent the roughly 8 million people living in Switzerland – each member of the National Council represents around 42,000 people. The largest delegation, which is from the canton of Zurich, has 35 members. As the Constitution states that every canton is entitled to at least one seat in the National Council, even Appenzell Innerrhoden, which only has a population of 16,000, sends a people’s representative to Bern.
The 46 members of the Council of States represent the cantons, whereby each canton has two representatives, although here too there is an exception: as former half-cantons, the cantons of Obwalden, Nidwalden, Basel-Stadt, Basel-Landschaft, Appenzell Ausserrhoden and Appenzell Innerrhoden each have only one representative. The members of the Council of States are directly elected.
The National Council and the Council of States generally sit separately, but they also handle certain items of business in joint session as the United Federal Assembly, for instance when electing the members of the Federal Council and federal court judges. As such, the Federal Assembly is the highest authority in the Swiss Confederation, subject to the rights of the people and the cantons. This is an aspect peculiar to Switzerland: in contrast to other countries, Parliament elects the government and the federal judiciary. Parliament’s decisions are not subject to review by any court.
The United Federal Assembly sits in the National Council chamber. While the members of the National Council sit in their usual seats, the members of the Council of States take up seats allocated to their respective cantons around the back wall of the chamber. The sessions are chaired by the President of the National Council, which is why he or she is often referred to as the highest ranking person in the country.
Not all countries have a bicameral parliamentary system; many have only one chamber. Where there are two chambers, generally the larger chamber – which normally represents the people – has more to say than the smaller chamber – which often represents the regions. In Switzerland the situation is different: each chamber has the same powers, and they deal with the same business in the same way. This even applies to budgetary issues. The chambers take turns to be the first to debate bills, and the two chambers must agree on all points for the bill to pass. The individual members of the Council of States and the National Council also have the same rights: they can all submit draft laws or other requests to the Federal Council.
However, because of differences in their political composition, the two chambers often do not reach the same decision. Here the size of the chamber also plays a role: the 46 members of the Council of States can speak spontaneously on any matter, whereas the 200 members of the National Council have to comply with complex rules on who speaks when, which is not conducive to spontaneous speeches. As a result it is easier to influence a vote with persuasive arguments in the Council of States than it is in the National Council.
It often takes some time before a new law is agreed on exactly the same terms in both chambers. Yet once it has been agreed and has overcome the hurdle of a potential referendum, the new law will also have a certain permanence.