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Research Article

Partisan Voting in the German Bundesrat. The Case of its Finance Committee


The role of partisanship in the Bundesrat, Germany’s second chamber designed to represent the territorial interest of the 16 Länder, has been at the centre of debates for decades. In this contribution, we revisit the topic from a novel perspective, focusing on the Bundesrat’s Finance Committee, a central, but so far overlooked actor in the realm of fiscal and financial policies in the Federal Republic. Based on around 1,300 roll call votes, we are able to analyse the voting behaviour of the committee members, the 16 Länder finance ministers and senators, on a large empirical basis. We find, first, that unanimity is an important feature of decision-making, reflecting the existence of joint policy perspectives among the finance ministers and senators. Nevertheless, there is, second, no ‘consensus by default’ as around 40 percent of the roll call votes are contested. The W-Nominate ideal point estimation thereby provides strong evidence that partisanship instead of territorial interests accounts for the conflict.


Does partisanship determine the voting behaviour of the Länder in the Bundesrat? Unlike in other second chambers, its members are envoys of the Länder governments. Representing their Länder at the federal level, they are expected to advocate territorial interests. At the same time, however, they are party politicians. This is why there is the risk that territorial interests fall victim to partisan agendas. This would not only contradict the raison d’être of the Bundesrat as a chamber of territorial interest representation. It would also have a profound impact on the outcomes of federal policy-making due to the Bundesrat’s extensive powers in legislative and administrative affairs (Finke et al. Citation2020, 214). Not surprisingly, a burgeoning amount of literature has elaborated on the role of partisan interests for Bundesrat decision-making (for example, Bräuninger, Gschwend, and Shikano Citation2010; Leunig and Träger Citation2012; Sturm Citation2001).

In this contribution, we revisit the topic, focusing on a ‘thorny issue’ (Auel Citation2014, 435): money. In any political system, the (re-)distribution of financial means is politically controversial, and Germany is no exception to this as illustrated by the constant debates on who has to pay for what. In contrast to the United States or Canada where sub-national states are vested with a large degree of fiscal autonomy, the German federation is characterised by close interconnections between the different tiers of government. As an example, consider the tax regime. German tax legislation falls almost exclusively under federal legislative competence. But the Länder have a decisive say in it: they have far-reaching competences in administering tax legislation, and federal tax bills need the consent of the Bundesrat (Heinemann et al. Citation2015, 654).

The inquiry to research voting behaviour in the Bundesrat is not as straightforward as it might appear at a first glance. In its plenary sessions, which take place roughly once a month and make its final decisions, individual positions of the Länder are normally not recorded.Footnote1 Consequently, the plenary protocols lack the empirical information necessary to analyse voting behaviour. This is why we suggest drawing the attention to the Finance Committee of the Bundesrat. The reason to do so is in fact twofold. On the one hand, the protocols of the committee sessions record the individual Länder positions. There is only one restriction: The Bundesrat grants access to the committee protocols until the end of the second last federal legislative period.Footnote2 Other than that, they are accessible, providing for a unique source of ‘official’ information to open the ‘black box’ that the Bundesrat largely is. On the other hand, the actual policy-making in the Bundesrat happens – as in most parliaments – not in the plenary, but in the committees (Alter Citation2002, 300; Sturm and Müller Citation2013, 150).

The Finance Committee of the Bundesrat is therefore a central, yet so far overlooked, actor in the realm of fiscal and financial policies in the Federal Republic. It is the lead committee in all matters related to the budget, taxes and financial regulation.Footnote3 The fact that, as the attendance lists of the committee protocols reveal, the Finance Committee is the only one, in which politicians, and not civil servants on their behalf, regularly attend the meetings, underlines its relevance both for sectoral policy-making and within the committee system of the Bundesrat. Its recommendations regularly pre-empt the plenary decisions. As an example, we scrutinised the adoption rate of its recommendations related to two key actions of the Bundesrat towards bills proposed by the federal government or the Bundestag: whether to give consent to a bill, and whether and why to call for the ‘Vermittlungsausschuss’, the joint committee of Bundestag and Bundesrat to find compromises on contested issues. For three selected years, 1998, 2005, and 2012, we initially registered the respective recommendations of the Finance Committee and then compared them with the final decisions of the Bundesrat. In all three years under scrutiny, more than three quarters of its recommendations were eventually adopted (23 of 26 in 1998, 22 of 28 in 2005, and 30 of 38 in 2012).

The remainder of the paper proceeds as follows. In the next section, we will briefly describe the working procedure of the Finance Committee based on background talks with experts,Footnote4 conducted on site in Berlin. The third section elaborates on voting behaviour in the Finance Committee from a theoretical perspective, discussing partisanship vis-à-vis territorial and sectoral interests. For the empirical analysis, we draw on a brand-new dataset that Müller and Sturm (Citation2020) have compiled. It includes information on roll call votes (RCV) in the Bundesrat committees for selected years between 1991 and 2012. We use a section of these data that refer to voting behaviour in the Finance Committee. After explaining data and methods in the fourth section, we proceed with the presentation of our empirical results in a fifth section and with their discussion and implications in the final section.


In parliaments all over the world, committees are at the core of legislative activities and thus of central importance for their functioning (for example, Strøm Citation1998). This is why they have attracted a great deal of scholarly attention. The investigation of committees contributes to our understanding of parliaments’ internal procedures. Moreover, as the actual place of policy-making, their recommendations largely determine the decisions of the parliament as a whole (Settembri and Neuhold Citation2009, 129). This observation also applies to the Bundesrat. Its committees examine almost all legislation scheduled for a plenary decision. As the plenary has to decide upon between 50 and 100 agenda items once a month, it relies on the preparation by the committees, mostly adopting or rejecting their recommendations, but it normally does not engage in deliberation again (Alter Citation2002, 300). The Finance Committee is one of currently 16 standing committees.Footnote5

The Bundesrat is one of a kind. While it acts as a second chamber, it formally constitutes, according to the Basic Law, a federal organ that brings together the envoys of the Länder governments. The committees therefore do not assemble parliamentarians, but executives – a rather unusual institutional setting for a parliamentary entity. Federalism in Germany presupposes close horizontal intergovernmental relations amongst the Länder governments for coordination and bargaining (Hegele Citation2018; Lhotta and Blumenthal Citation2015). The Bundesrat committees are a major arena, in which these take place. The Länder governments are represented in each of the committees with one member, normally the minister or senator who supervises the corresponding portfolio in the cabinet. The members of the Finance Committee are hence the 16 Länder finance ministers and senators.

A characteristic feature of the committee work is the so-called ‘Ressortprinzip’. What does it mean? The Ressortprinzip is a tenet of governance in the Federal Republic that is also enshrined in Article 65 of the Basic Law. Within the boundaries of the coalition treaty or government programme, it gives cabinet members room for manoeuvre, allowing them to take responsibility for the actions related to their portfolio. ‘Due to the Ressortprinzip’, as Finke et al. (Citation2020, 217) explain, ‘the ministers, no matter their political party affiliation in case of coalition governments, define the (voting) behavior of the Land in “their” committee.’ The Bundesrat applies the Ressortprinzip at the committee stage out of practical reasons. The deadlines to scrutinise legislation and prepare the Land positions are usually tight. Due to the workload of the Bundesrat, it would be impossible to coordinate a single government position on all legislation already at the committee stage. This effort is limited to a few exceptional cases that are highly important to the Land or at the federal level.

There are also normative reasons for the Ressortprinzip. The Bundesrat explicitly asks its committees for a portfolio-specific evaluation of legislation, even though it regularly leads to potentially conflicting recommendations. The Bundesrat relies on strong committees that take on the substantial work. From the parliamentary literature we know that ‘(…) committee strength depends directly on the degree to which they are able to conduct their own affairs’ (Mickler Citation2017, 371). The Ressortprinzip gives the committees and their members a certain degree autonomy when scrutinising legislation. This modus operandi is commonly accepted, since the committees do not make the final calls. Different positions within the cabinet are brought together prior to the plenary sessions (Reuter Citation2007, 256f.). Here, the Länder government have to cast their votes, ranging from three to six depending on the population size, en bloc.

The Finance Committee applies the following working procedure. As experts in their fields, the civil servants in the Land ministries initially evaluate and draft positions to all agenda items of the committee meeting. As an example, consider a draft bill by the federal government that includes a provision, implying a costly adaptation of administration structures at the Länder level. In the so-called ‘first round’, Article 76 (2) of the Basic Law allows the Bundesrat to formulate an opinion on the draft bill. The experts, working for example in the Bavarian finance ministry, formulate a recommendation for an opinion in terms of a motion to be tabled in the Finance Committee meeting. This may aim at the change of a certain provision foreseen by the bill. Afterwards, the experts agree upon these positions with the management level of the ministry, the ones identified as being (or becoming) politically controversial possibly with the finance minister or senator personally.

Two days prior to the meeting, the standing sub-committee of the Finance Committee comes together. Based on the positions of their respective ministries, senior civil servants, normally (political) confidants of the minister or senator, already try to find common ground, so the politicians only have to deal with the still contested issues in the actual committee meeting. In the sub-committee meetings, substantial debates are normally not (officially) recorded. Due to the high level of secrecy, the envoys of the Länder have quite a discretion for bargaining a joint committee position that the ministers and senators may adopt. Given this extensive preparation, the committee meetings usually last a couple of minutes, since there is already an agreement on most agenda items. Nevertheless, the meetings are important political events: not only that they formally conclude the committee negotiations, they are a regular opportunity for Länder ministers and senators to meet their political party peers at the federal level, for example the parliamentary speakers on financial and budgetary politics, as they are on site in Berlin. Moreover, the ‘Finanzministerkonferenz’, one of the by now 18 ministerial conferences of the Länder, normally takes place immediately after the committee meeting.


Party competition and partisan positions vary across the Länder. The CDU in Saxony might take a different stand to certain legislation than the party colleagues in Schleswig-Holstein, while the positions of the SPD in Berlin might deviate from the one of the Social Democrats in Baden-Württemberg (Bräuninger et al. Citation2020). Therefore, political parties have set up mechanisms of coordination in the Bundesrat. The meetings of partisan leaders prior to the plenary sessions are well known. Similarly, the Länder representatives also get together according to their respective partisan affiliations immediately ahead of both the sub-committee and the committee meetings to engage in organising and arranging joint positions, the co-called ‘Parteilinien’ (Leonardy Citation2002).

Party politics in the Bundesrat has both ideological and strategic reasons. On the one hand, political parties promote different kinds of policies, especially on matters related to the budget, taxes and financial regulation. Krause and Potrafke (Citation2020), for example, find evidence that the partisan composition of the Länder governments influences their tax policies. Their analysis shows that left-wing and centre governments were more eager to increase the real estate transfer tax rates than their conservative counterparts. On the other hand, party politics in the Bundesrat arise from, as Lehmbruch (Citation2000) famously noted, the blurring boundaries of party competition, which ought to take place in the Bundestag as the first chamber of parliament, but spilled over to the Bundesrat as party leaders discovered its strategic potential in the 1970s. The social-liberal government of Chancellor Willy Brandt depended on the Bundesrat for the implementation of its agenda because major reforms were subject to its veto power. Eventually, the CDU/CSU made use of ‘their’ Länder governments in the Bundesrat, trying to block the social-liberal political programme at the federal level (Sturm Citation2015, 203f.). Since then, it has become a political routine that the federal opposition counteracts federal government policies in the Bundesrat, and vice versa. For example, the Social Democrats famously vetoed the ‘Petersberger Modell’, the tax reform plans of the CDU and chancellor Helmut Kohl in 1997, via the majority of SPD-led Länder governments in the Bundesrat (Adam Citation2020, 251).

The partisan cleavage in the Bundesrat traditionally refers to a division between the so-called ‘A-Länder’ and the ‘B-Länder’. These terms have their origins in the 1970s. At the ‘Kultusministerkonferenz’, yet another and probably the most well-known ministerial conference of the Länder, the motions of SPD-ministers were summarised under heading ‘A’, the ones of CDU/CSU-ministers under heading ‘B’. Since then, the labels ‘A’ and ‘B’ are commonly used to describe partisan affiliations in the Bundesrat and, according to our talks with practitioners, also in all of its committees, including the Finance Committee. Following the differentiation of the party system and its effects on the composition of coalition governments, A-Länder are by now the ones represented by minsters or senators of the SPD, the Greens and the Left, and the B-Länder the ones represented by their counterparts of the CDU, the CSU and the FDP.

From a theoretical perspective, political party interests are only part of the story, however. There is hardly a Bundesrat committee, dealing with a policy area in which territorial interests and conflicts among the Länder are more pronounced. There are two particular territorial cleavages. The first one is between the East German and the West German Länder. The East German Länder, which joined the Federal Republic after unification in 1990, feature a range of similar characteristics, not the least with regard to fiscal relations. In a number of aspects, they are treated differently, mostly favourably, vis-à-vis federal-Länder fiscal redistribution mechanisms, such as federal means to support housing and urban development. Where these Länder receive relatively higher shares of fiscal means, this is meant to catch up with the ‘West’ or to deal with specific burdens stemming from pre-unification deficits or post-unification challenges. At both expert and political levels, East German Länder governments remain close ties, as illustrated by a regular conference of their minister presidents (‘MPK-Ost’).

The other territorial cleavage is between the rich and the poor Länder, which is in fact a north–south divide for the most part. Despite a sophisticated system of fiscal equalisation, there are some Länder, Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria, and Hessia in particular, which have been performing in economic terms way above average. Fiscal equalisation – under the current rulesFootnote6 – has had a vertical and a horizontal dimension (Färber Citation2015). The latter has always been contested because it foresees the re-distribution of money from the ‘rich’ to the ‘poor’ Länder. When fiscal policy-making involves the federal level, the donors share a common attitude, based on a self-image as the ones who must already make an extra effort for the good of others. Contributing most to the fiscal cake in relative terms, they have a joint interest in conservative fiscal policy-making, advocating budgetary solidity that should be required from all Länder governments before helping out by transfer payments. Moreover, as they have the necessary financial means to cover (additional) costs, the ‘rich’ have regularly argued in favour of more Länder competences and autonomy (Renzsch Citation2019).

The territorial interest of a Land may crosscut political party interest (Jeffery Citation1999, 149). This is why finance ministers regularly face conflicts of loyalty. For example, a SPD-finance minister of Hessia has to decide on whether to support a bill, aimed at fiscal solidity at the Länder level. From a donor perspective, it would be in the interest of Hessia that all Länder stick to budget solidity, yet this position would contradict political party ideology. Some scholars of German federalism, like Leunig and Träger (Citation2014, 76f.), argue that loyalty towards territory mostly prevails. This is well in line with the self-perceptions of the experts, working in the Finance Committee, as we learned in our background talks.

Finally, we must take account of sectoral interests (Hegele Citation2018, 248f.). In budgetary issues in particular, the Länder have regularly ‘closed ranks’ to speak with one voice vis-à-vis the federal government and hence to improve their bargaining hand (Renzsch Citation1999, 188). According to the experts we have talked to, these joint positions have also been prepared in the Finance Committee. It assembles politicians and experts once a month. On-going face-to-face contact leads to personal relationships that in turn make striking compromises easier. Thereby, the so-called ‘brotherhoods’ of sectoral experts (Wagener Citation1979) are particularly prevalent in finance. The ministers and senators have a similar educational background,Footnote7 while most of the civil servants in the field have gone through a special scheme of postgraduate training for lawyers, leading to similar or identical assessments of legislation. Moreover, and especially amongst (German) politicians, there is the common sectoral goal of fiscal discipline (‘Schwarze Null’), read a balanced budget (Jochimsen and Nuscheler Citation2011). Common sectoral interests may lead to a routine of consensual decision-making.

As a result, we deal with three modes of voting behaviour in the Finance Committee. The first one refers to the partisan cleavage. On this reading, the ‘partisan capture’ of the policy- and decision-making process in the Bundesrat gives rise to the expectation that finance ministers and senators are primarily loyal to the political party they are member of and hence vote in accordance with their partisan side – ‘A’ or ‘B’. The second mode depicts territorial cleavages, assuming that their territorial affiliations, rather than partisan ones, guide the voting behaviour of the finance ministers and senators. While these two modes start from the premise that there is conflict, the third mode of voting behaviour relates to consensus in the committee. In this regard, unanimity dominates over partisan or territorial frictions as finance ministers and senators are committed to a common sectoral position of the committee. The three modes of voting behaviour are summarised in .



In general, the committee meetings are not open to the public. The committee secretariats draft a protocol for each meeting, however. These protocols are not publicly accessible unless the committee decides to lift their confidentiality. Since 1980, the Bundesrat and its committees have established the routine to do so at the beginning of a new federal legislative term for all protocols until the end of the second last federal legislative term. If not explicitly categorised as a matter of secrecy, the released committee protocols are accessible in hard copy in the library of the Bundesrat. They are no stenographic reports, but they include at least an attendance list, details on the pieces of legislation (usually the title and the document number) and the related motions as well as information on the results of each voting procedure, for example that nine Länder voted in favour of a motion, five against it and two opted for abstention. Compared to the plenary sessions, there is one important difference with regard to the voting rules as each Land has one vote, and decisions require a simple and no absolute majority. Regardless of the specific distribution of the Länder in the example above, the motion would pass as nine of them support it. Since a change of the Bundesrat’s rules of operation after reunification, it became mandatory to also record the individual positions of the Länder in all voting procedures. In fact, experts told us that is was the Finance Committee which unsuccessfully tried to prevent this rule to become effective as it ran counter to its demand for secrecy.

Based on the committee protocols as well as further research, Müller and Sturm (Citation2020) have compiled a new dataset with more than 51.000 RCV to allow for systematic analyses of voting behaviour and decision-making in the Bundesrat committees. For our investigation, we use a section of these data that refer to the Finance Committee. At the most basic level, we are able to distinguish unanimous and non-unanimous RCV, revealing the actual extent of (sectoral) consensus in the Finance Committee. For the non-unanimous RCV, the data allow for the application of methods for the geometric scaling of voting. To this end, we use W-Nominate, which is among the most popular and established scaling techniques (Hix, Noury, and Roland Citation2009, 824).Footnote8

The different Nominate models (Poole and Rosenthal Citation1997) estimate ideal points of legislators and locate them in an abstract, low-dimensional political space. The idea is that in most political systems, competition revolves around one or two (latent) dimensions of conflict, on which individual legislators (or political parties) have an ideal point. They are assumed to vote for the alternative that comes closest to their respective ideal points. If a proposed bill changed the status quo in the direction of the legislator’s ideal point, she would opt for Yea, and vice versa. Consider a political space with one dimension that depicts the traditional ‘state vs. market’ conflict. If a bill were aimed at a tighter regulation of financial institutions, we would expect a pro-market (liberal) minister to vote against it as it does not correspond with her ideal point on the pro-market side of the conflict. On the other hand, a left-wing minister would support the bill as it meets his ideal point on the pro-regulation side of the conflict.

The W-Nominate algorithm recovers ideal points from observing empirical choices. In technical terms, it uses an alternating maximum likelihood procedure. After calculating starting values for legislators derived from their agreement matrix, an iterative estimation process begins to find out the values for their ideal points that maximise the likelihood function (Armstrong et al. Citation2014, 192f.). Each dimension has a range of values between −1 and +1. For legislators, presenting similar voting records, the values are closer together than for those with less similar ones. W-Nominate is available as a package for the statistical software R (Poole et al. Citation2011). It requires only a few inputs from the researcher, above all the number of dimensions, which needs to be set beforehand, as well as the specification of a legislator who definitely falls on the positive side of each dimension as reference (Monogan Citation2015, 148ff.).

Despite potential flaws and inaccuracies of the approach (Clinton, Jackman, and Rivers Citation2004), we use W-Nominate as it does not require any previous knowledge about the political space and is hence well suited for explorative studies such as ours. In terms of their substantial meaning, researchers are able to interpret dimensions and ideal points afterwards. Moreover, W-Nominate provides for an instructive approach here as we achieve two research goals ‘in one go’: we recover information on both the conflict structure of the political space and the individual positions of the finance ministers and senators.

There is only one pitfall: all Nominate algorithms assume a binary choice between Yea and Nay, whereas abstention counts as missing data. For our case, however, we may consider abstention in fact as a meaningful action because it can be understood as a weaker form of non-support than Nay. Abstention is often used in practice when a policy proposal is not preferred and, if decision-making were completely independent of all political circumstances, therefore dismissed. For political reasons, not the least to ‘hide’ conflicts from other committees or from the federal government, abstention is chosen. Alternatively, interpreting it as a weaker form of Yea would clearly be less convincing because its affirmative quality is restricted to the fact that ‘among evils’, the respective policy proposal is less non-preferable than the proposal rejected with Nay. This is in line with the plenary sessions of the Bundesrat. Here, abstention substantially means to ‘not vote’ with the supporters of a certain action. Moreover, experts of the Finance Committee underline the importance of the Ressortprinzip. In the plenary sessions, when governments have to speak with ‘a single voice’, a Land regularly opts for abstention if the coalition partners cannot agree upon a joint position. This routine is usually enshrined in the coalition treaty as the so-called ‘Bundesratsklausel’. At the committee stage, these Bundesratsklauseln do not apply. Abstentions due to disagreement in the coalition are therefore rather unusual in the Finance Committee. This is why we decided to treat abstentions as Nays.

W-Nominate is a particularly useful tool to investigate and compare the ideal position of a Land in the committee shortly before and after the partisan affiliation of its finance minister or senator changes, since territorial characteristics do not change in such a short period. There is one limitation that comes along with the dataset, however. It does not cover all committee meetings as the authors relate their data collection to the partisan majority constellations between Bundestag and Bundesrat. Since it is therefore not possible to include all changes of government, we had to select cases. Initially, we singled out the cases when the party colour of the finance ministers changed as a consequence of the inauguration of a new government or a cabinet reshuffle and this change had an effect on their affiliation to either the A- or the B-Länder in the Finance Committee. For example, the incumbent SPD finance minister was replaced by a CDU finance minister, and the Land is henceforth part of the B-Länder in the Finance Committee. Then, we scrutinised whether the dataset covers an meaningful number of committee meetings beforehand and afterwards.

This selection process resulted in three events of government change for the empirical analysis: in Hessia, Saarland and Berlin in 1999, in North Rhine-Westphalia and Schleswig-Holstein in 2005, and in Hamburg and Baden-Württemberg in 2011. presents the details, including information on the committee meetings covered in the dataset and the number of RCV.



As the first step of the data analysis, we have investigated the relative share of unanimous RCV, which reflects the extent to which consensus governs the voting behaviour. A high degree of unanimous RCV would speak for the prevalence of common sectoral interests that upstage partisan or territorial cleavages. presents the details. When we consider all data, the share of unanimous RCV is 59 per cent. While the share differs across the six investigation periods, it is always more than a half. This finding is a strong empirical evidence for the existence of sectoral interests among finance ministers and senators. Yet, there is no ‘consensus by default’ as a relevant share of cases, namely 41 per cent, are contested. Moreover, in less than half of the cases related to recommendations on (draft) bills, initiated by the federal government or the Bundestag, the committee members voted unanimously. In particular, the data on two central actions in this regard, recommendations on opinions on draft bills and on calls for the Vermittlungsausschuss, present a share of unanimous RCV at around one third only. For explaining voting behaviour in the Finance Committee, sectoral interests therefore appear to be only one side of the coin.


But what is the other? Do the partisan cleavage, territorial cleavages, or even all together account for conflict in the Finance Committee? In the second step in the analysis, we have focused on and tried to make sense of the non-unanimous RCV. To this end, we applied the W-Nominate algorithm to our data.Footnote9 For each of the six investigation periods, we calculated the ideal points of the 16 Länder as well as the bootstrap standard error.Footnote10 With regard to the necessary inputs by the researcher before running W-Nominate, we set the number of dimensions to three, and we defined Bavaria, a rich Land in the West and always governed by the CSU, as the reference observation on each of the three dimensions. Initially, we aim at getting an idea of the political space. W-Nominate provides us with fit statistics to assess the relative importance of each dimension for the estimation of ideal points. presents the results for the ‘correct classification’ as well as the ‘Aggregate Proportional Reduction Error’ (APRE) if the model includes one, two or three dimensions. At this point, these dimensions have no substantial meaning, but depict the conflict structure of the political space in abstract statistical terms.


The correct classification refers to the relative number of vote choices that have been correctly classified with the use of one, two, or three dimension(s), divided by the total number of choices made. The APRE is a stricter mean of measuring whether the model fits. It is defined as the difference of total minority votes and the classification error, divided by the total minority votes. In a ‘10–6’ vote in the Finance Committee, we would get a correct classification rate of 62.5 per cent if we were just assuming that each minister voted Yea. The APRE measures, aggregated across all roll calls, how much the model improves classification among the six minority votes (Armstrong et al. Citation2014, 200). To put it simply, the ‘(…) APRE denotes the extent to which the spatial model better accounts for observed vote choices than a model that simply predicts that each deputy always votes with the side in the majority on each roll call’ (Rosenthal and Voeten Citation2004, 624).

shows that in all investigation periods, more than 90 per cent of the vote choices have been correctly classified by using one dimension. The marginal improvement of including a second and a third dimension is obviously quite low as correct classification only rises by a few additional per cent. The APRE offers a mixed picture. In the first two investigation periods, it suggests indeed a mostly unidimensional political space. In the other four investigation periods, the APRE of the first dimension is lower. We must include three dimensions in the model to leap over 0.8, in the last investigation period even more dimensions. This finding, which is similar to research on another body that represents both territorial and partisan interests, the European Union’s Council of Ministers (Hagemann Citation2007, 289f.), suggest a complex political space, especially in newer times. Nevertheless, despite differences across our investigation periods, we generally observe one dominant dimension of conflict, which accounts for way more observed vote choices than the additional ones.

As the third step in the analysis, we try to make sense of the abstract dimensions W-Nominate reports and also turn to the individual ideal points of the finance ministers. As noted, W-Nominate leaves the substantial interpretation of dimensions and ideal points to the researcher. So, what conflict is behind that dominant first dimension W-Nominate reports? presents the alignment of the Länder on that dimension. Thereby, we marked all Länder represented by a finance minister of the ‘A’-side with a black rhombus, and the ones of the ‘B’-side with a black square.


Note: Values represent the ideal points of finance ministers, including bootstrapped standard errors, on the first dimension that W-Nominate reports; black rhombus: A-Länder (ministers from SPD, Greens and Left); black square: B-Länder (ministers from CDU, CSU and FDP). Abbreviations: BW = Baden-Württemberg, BY = Bavaria, BE = Berlin, BB = Brandenburg, HB = Bremen, HH = Hamburg, HE = Hessia, MV = Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, NI = Lower-Saxony, NW = North Rhine-Westphalia, RP = Rhineland-Palatine, SL = Saarland, SN = Saxony, ST = Saxony-Anhalt, SH = Schleswig-Holstein, TH = Thuringia. Source: own calculations.

FIGURE 1 IDEAL POINTS OF THE FINANCE MINISTERSNote: Values represent the ideal points of finance ministers, including bootstrapped standard errors, on the first dimension that W-Nominate reports; black rhombus: A-Länder (ministers from SPD, Greens and Left); black square: B-Länder (ministers from CDU, CSU and FDP). Abbreviations: BW = Baden-Württemberg, BY = Bavaria, BE = Berlin, BB = Brandenburg, HB = Bremen, HH = Hamburg, HE = Hessia, MV = Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, NI = Lower-Saxony, NW = North Rhine-Westphalia, RP = Rhineland-Palatine, SL = Saarland, SN = Saxony, ST = Saxony-Anhalt, SH = Schleswig-Holstein, TH = Thuringia. Source: own calculations.

There are two major findings. First, the Länder align in accordance with the affiliation to ‘A’ or ‘B’ in all investigation periods. There is no other interpretation plausible: this dimension reflects the partisan cleavage. All Länder represented by a finance minister or senator who is party member of the ‘A’-side are located on the left of this dimension. Vice versa, the Länder represented by a finance minister or senator of the ‘B’-side find themselves on the right of the dimension.

This does not only apply to the finance ministers and senators of SPD and CDU/CSU, but also to the ones of the small parties. As finance ministers have a say in whether to realise political programmes, they are traditionally from the same political party as the minister president (Larsson Citation1993, 207f.). We observe this pattern also in Länder cabinets. Based on our own research (Müller et al. Citation2020, 308–373), we find 92 Länder cabinets, consisting of more than one political party, between 1990 and 2013. In the vast majority of the coalitions, namely in 78, the minister president and the finance minister have the same partisan affiliation. Therefore, the Finance Committee has been dominated by SPD and CDU/CSU ministers and senators. There are only a few exceptions. In our investigation periods, Saxony-Anhalt (ST) was represented by a finance minister of the FDP, Karl-Heinz Paqué, in the committee meetings 790–796 and 800–808. The data show that his respective ideal points come closer to the ones of his colleagues of the CDU/CSU. On the other side, we observe that in committee meetings 864–870 and 872–876, the ideal points of the Green finance senator of Bremen (HB), Karoline Linnert, and the Left finance minister of Brandenburg (BB), Helmut Markov, align with the ones of their SPD colleagues. This result also shows that the three representatives of the ‘small’ parties have by and large followed their major coalition partner in the respective Land government.

Second, the data clearly reflects the changes of government. In 1999, in Hessia (HE) and in Saarland (SL), long-standing SPD-led governments were ousted. The CDU formed the new governments, in Saarland alone and in Hessia together with the FDP. In Berlin (BE), the Grand Coalition remained in office after the 1999 elections, yet the portfolios were newly assigned, and finance went from a SPD- to a CDU-senator. Comparing the ideal points in meetings 711–717 with those in meetings 726–731, all three Länder changed partisan sides. This had far-reaching consequences for their voting behaviour. For example, Berlin, Hessia and Saarland had supported the federal government’s tax relief law (‘Steuentlastungsgesetz 1999, 2000, 2002’) in the committee prior to the inauguration of the new governments. Afterwards, the same three Länder joined the B-camp to recommend stopping another prestige proposal of the federal government, the renewable energy law (‘Erneuerbare-Energien-Gesetz – EEG’). The Grand Coalition in Berlin case also provides for a strong argument in favour of the rigorous application of the Ressortprinzip. Neither the SPD finance senator Annette Fugmann-Heesing prior to the cabinet reshuffle, nor Peter Kurth of the CDU who took over from her afterwards, stepped out of line due to coalition concerns. shows that they perfectly align with the other A-Länder and B-Länder, respectively.

For North Rhine-Westphalia (NW) and Schleswig-Holstein (SH) in 2005, and for Hamburg (HH) and Baden-Württemberg (BW) in 2011, we observe the same pattern as the newly elected CDU finance ministers in the former two cases, and the newly elected SPD finance ministers in the latter two cases, immediately changed partisan sides. Whereas Schleswig-Holstein and Hamburg have always been ‘swing states’, North Rhine-Westphalia and Baden-Württemberg have traditionally been entrenched with the A-side and the B-side, respectively. The government changes marked major turnarounds. In North Rhine-Westphalia, the SPD had lost its traditional stronghold for the first time after 39 years, which consequently affected the Land positions in the Finance Committee. For example, the new finance minister, Helmut Linssen, aligned with his CDU- and FDP-colleagues to thwart the proposal by the federal ministry of economy and labour, in fact led by the former SPD minister president of North Rhine-Westphalia, Wolfgang Clement, to change the social act (‘Entwurf eines Gesetzes zur Änderung des Zweiten Buches Sozialgesetzbuch’).

In the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster that triggered public protest against the nuclear plants in Germany as well as the criticism of the incumbent political parties CDU and FDP for managing the reconstruction of the central train station in Stuttgart, the Baden-Württemberg elections in 2011 brought into power a new government of Greens and Social Democrats. Notably, for the first time ever, a Land government was led by a Green minister president. The SPD politician Nils Schmid became the finance minister of the new government. Initially, Baden-Württemberg regularly voted abstention, sometimes as the only one in cases when there was a conflict between the A- and the B-Länder and the other 15 stuck to their partisan sides. After settling in, however, Schmid began to align with the ‘A’-side, for example, to push through a recommendation against the CDU finance ministers, aimed at calling for the ‘Vermittlungsausschuss’ to tighten the provisions of a federal government bill on brokerage of financial assets (‘Gesetz zur Novellierung des Finanzanlagenvermittler- und Vermögensanlagenrechts’).

Finally, let us turn to the other two dimensions we included in the W-Nominate model. Compared to first dimension that depicts the partisan cleavage, the second and the third one account for way less vote choices of finance ministers and senators. Yet, according to the W- Nominate results presented in , they appear to have at least some importance for their voting behaviour. We do not find evidence, however, that the two additional dimensions refer to the either the cleavage between the ‘rich’ and the ‘poor’ or to the one between the ‘East’ and the ‘West’. Across the six investigation periods, the distribution of Länder on each side of the two additional dimensions varies. In fact, we do not find the same pattern at least twice. And at no point, we observe a clear-cut alignment of the ‘rich’ donors vs. the ‘poor’ receivers in the fiscal equalisation scheme or of the ‘East’ vs. the ‘West’. At the territorial level of contestation, our data point to changing, situational interest alliances between the finance ministers and senators on specific issues and also to individual dissenters who vote against the other 15, such as Baden-Württemberg after the inauguration of the new government of Greens and the SPD, due to special regional or governmental circumstances.


In this contribution, we have revisited the question of partisanship in the Bundesrat from a novel perspective, focusing on its Finance Committee, a central, but so far overlooked actor in the realm of fiscal and financial policies in the Federal Republic. The Finance Committee is a key arena of horizontal intergovernmental relations, bringing together the 16 finance ministers and senators of the Länder as well as the experts working in the finance ministry to scrutinise legislation and develop recommendation for the plenary sessions of the Bundesrat. As the remarkable adoption rate of its recommendations shows, finance ministers and senators occupy a strong position in their respective cabinets, and the Finance Committee is a powerful actor in the decision-making procedures of the Bundesrat, having a decisive leverage on its final calls. In contrast to the plenary sessions, the publicly accessible protocols of the Finance Committee register the individual positions of the Länder, making it possible to analyse their voting behaviour. For the empirical analysis, we have built on a new dataset that comprises information on thousands of committee decisions, using a section of it that relates to the Finance Committee and includes around 1,300 RCV before and after three events of government change in the Länder in 1999, 2005 and 2011.

The data reveal that unanimity is an important feature of voting behaviour in the Finance Committee, reaffirming the prevalence of common sectoral beliefs among finance ministers and senators. Yet, there is ‘no consensus by default’ as more than 40 per cent of the RCV we have analysed are contested. If the finance ministers and their confidents are not able to organise consensus, partisanship dominates the voting behaviour. Using the W-Nominate approach to ideal point estimation, we initially found that across the investigation periods in our dataset, there is one dominant dimension of conflict, which accounts for most observed vote choices. The subsequent interpretation of Länder alignment on this dimension has been straightforward: the SPD, Green and Left finance ministers and senators are located on one side, the ones of the CDU/CSU and the FDP on the other. The importance of partisanship is underscored by the finding that the Länder ideal points immediately ‘changed sides’ after finance ministers and senators with a different political party affiliation than their predecessor came into office.

The ideal points thus reflect the partisan cleavage in the Bundesrat between the A-Länder and the B-Länder. The existence of this conflict is commonly assumed, yet it has been hard to prove empirically due to the lack of data on plenary decision-making. The analysis in this paper provides empirical evidence on a sound data basis beyond single case studies that partisanship plays a role for the voting behaviour of Länder executives in the Bundesrat. Surprisingly, it also weighs more than the affiliations of the Länder to either side of the territorial cleavages. In fact, our data do not account for either one of the two territorial cleavages between the ‘rich’ and the ‘poor’ and the ‘East’ and the ‘West’. If there is territorial conflict, we observe issue-specific territorial alliances. This finding resonates well with the one by Hegele (Citation2018, 261) who argues that if the Länder coordinate a joint position due to territorial characteristics, they do so for specific policies rather than because of the structural territorial cleavages.

We need to be careful, however, to generalise from our findings to other committees or to the plenary. On the one hand, the Finance Committee is the only one in which politicians attend the meetings, making it a most-likely case for party politics. In fact, research suggests that while the extent to which partisanship dominates decision-making differs across Bundesrat committees, it is indeed relatively pronounced in the Finance Committee (Finke et al. Citation2020, 227). On the other hand, the committees apply the Ressortprinzip, so that coalition concerns are normally excluded when defining the Land’s position. Therefore, it is easier for the finance minister or senator to commit to partisan positions. In the plenary sessions, the Länder governments must speak with ‘a single voice’. Moreover, coalitions regularly crosscut ‘A’ and ‘B’ affiliations. Ultimately, it is more complicated to coordinate partisan positions in the plenary, making a clear-cut alignment of the A- and the B-Länder less likely.

Nevertheless, the analysis of the Finance Committee provides for an instructive approach to open the ‘black box’, and it discloses a more general take-away for scholars of (German) federalism. Partisanship does not hinder the ambitions of the Länder representatives to find common ground, pointing at the compromise-seeking culture that is a key feature of the cooperative federalism as practiced in Germany. But political parties are dominant in recruiting politicians at each level of government, and they have established effective means of coordination in the Bundesrat. Voting behaviour in the Finance Committee reveals that the impression of the Bundesrat as the nonpartisan ‘Länderkammer’, as which it might appear when observing the monthly plenary sessions, falls short. Partisanship influences its decision-making procedures and hence affects political outcomes.


Supplemental data for this article can be accessed on the Taylor & Francis website, https://doi.org/10.1080/09644008.2020.1842364.

The W-Nominate results have been submitted together with the manuscript.

Supplemental material

Supplemental Material

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No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author(s).

Additional information


This work was supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) [Grant Number 290366311].

Notes on contributors

Antonios Souris

Antonios Souris is doctoral researcher at the Chair of German and Comparative Politics, European Studies & Political Economy at the Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg. He has been research fellow in the project ‘Party Politics in the German Bundesrat. Voting behaviour in the Bundesrat Committees’, funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) between 2017 and 2020.

Markus M. Müller

Markus M. Müller is Honorary Professor of Political & Administrative Sciences at the Zeppelin Universität in Friedrichshafen. He has been co-leading the DFG research project together with Roland Sturm.


1 Bräuninger, Gschwend, and Shikano (Citation2010), for example, make use of the 53 exceptional cases between 1990 and 2005. Only recently, the Länder governments have started to publish their plenary positions online. So far, this routine is a voluntary self-disclosure, however, whose validity cannot be checked. An overview where to find this information by Land is available at: https://bit.ly/2DlrGKm (last access on 28 Aug. 2020).

2 At times of writing, this includes the protocols up until 22 October 2013 that marks the end of the 17th federal legislative period. The protocols for the 18th legislative period (2013–2017) should be accessible by the beginning of the year 2021.

3 Hence, the Bundesrat’s Finance Committee has a broad portfolio. In the Bundestag, there are two different committees, one dealing with budgetary issues and one with financial policies.

4 These were conducted between June and Dec. 2018 and comprised seven background talks in Berlin with experts working with the Bundesrat secretariat and the Land representations. We assured anonymity to the experts.

5 Besides the Finance Committee, there are the following standing committees: Agriculture; EU; Legal Affairs; Labour; Foreign Affairs; Women and Youth; Families and Senior Citizens; Health; Interior Affairs; Culture; Environment; Transport; Economic Affairs; Defence; and Housing.

6 From 2020 onwards, the current system will be replaced by the new scheme adopted in 2017.

7 At least for the ministers, we are able to pinpoint the educational background without much difficulty. Between 1991, immediately after German unification, to 2013, until then the committee protocols are open to the public, 84 different finance ministers were appointed as members of the Finance Committee. Their educational background is mainly economics with 31 per cent and law with 27 per cent, followed by science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) with 13 per cent. Interestingly, finance ministers are usually professional politicians: only 11 per cent of them never had experience as a minister or parliamentarian prior to their appointment.

8 W-Nominate automatically discounts all unanimous RCV in the data before running the algorithm.

9 An excerpt of the results is provided as supplementary material.

10 W-Nominate allows us to set the number of bootstrap trials for standard errors. A number below four will not return any standard errors. The size of our empirical data allowed us five bootstrap trials in each investigation period.


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