Any large group needs rules in order to function properly, and the same is true of the National Council and Council of States: each council member is allocated a seat in the chamber, with members of the same party usually grouped together. At the first session of the new legislature period, each chamber elects a president and the members of the Council Office. The president chairs the council meetings. He or she is supported by the council secretariat.
The members of a party or parties with similar views form parliamentary groups. At least five members from one council are needed to form a parliamentary group. In the National Council, only members of a parliamentary group have the right to express their views on an item of business. Furthermore, membership of a parliamentary group is also a prerequisite to be granted a seat on a committee. It is therefore only really possible for members to play an active role if they belong to a parliamentary group. That is why parties with fewer than five council members are keen to join a group. They are also courted, because the more members a parliamentary group has, the more seats they are entitled to on committees and the greater influence they have on council business.
Given the volume of business they have to deal with, often on technical issues, it is difficult for council members to reach an informed opinion. Before an item of business comes before the council, it is therefore discussed within the parliamentary groups with the aim of agreeing on a common position which can be supported by the members of the group in the chamber and before the media and general public. However, when the matter is voted on in the chamber, members are not instructed how to vote. Council members may not vote on the instruction of another person; their vote may therefore deviate from the position of their parliamentary group or canton.
The committees provide an opportunity for matters to be discussed in greater detail, to clarify specific issues, hear experts from the administration or from the interest groups concerned, and address questions to federal councillors. They also serve as a testing ground to see whether a majority can be found for certain positions or ideas across party lines.
The main role of Parliament is to enact legislation. The spectrum is wide, ranging from the Swiss abroad to civilian service, environmental protection to motorway building, war material to peace promotion.
However, Parliament is also responsible for:
No parliamentary group is strong enough on its own to secure the passage of a bill; to do this, it needs to form alliances. When contentious bills are debated, Parliament normally divides into two camps: one conservative and the other left-leaning. Ultimately the political centre decides whether the bill passes, depending on which side it favours. From time to time though, an ‘unholy’ alliance may be formed: the left wing – the SP and the Greens – will join with the right-wing SVP to bring fundamental changes to a bill or even to vote it down entirely, often for quite different reasons.