The Federal Assembly’s main task is to defend the sometimes diverging interests and opinions of the electorate. It declares the Confederation’s stand on principal matters (subject to the rights of the electorate and the cantons to organise referendums and initiatives). The activities of the other federal authorities (the Federal Council, the federal courts, the federal administration) are limited by the powers vested in them by the people or parliament.
The assignments of the Federal Assembly are defined in the Federal Constitution. The main areas are the following:
In modern democracies any action taken by the state must be based on existing legislation, in other words, the state can only intervene if it is authorised to do so by the general regulations. Since it lays down the general rule of law (the"laws"), passing legislation therefore constitutes one of the basic functions of the state. This functions devolves to parliament the incarnation par excellence of the people which for this reason is often referred to as the "legislative body". In Switzerland, the laws which govern areas where the federal authorities have power are passed by parliament. Belonging in the same category, although at a higher level, are Acts which modify the constitution: revision of the constitution except in the case of a popular initiative is also the task of parliament. This is, of course, all subject to compulsory or optional referendums.
Parliament's part in the financial field does not consist in levying taxes but in seeing to the use which is made of tax revenues. Raising taxes is, in fact, provided for by law, therefore coming under Parliament's legislative competence described above.
Pursuant to its financial authority, Parliament decides on public expenditures of the Confederation; it allocates or refuses funds, thereby authorizing or not authorizing the Federal Council to take on commitments or settle debts.Provisions pertaining to public subsidies as well as appropriated (commitment) funds and maximum expenditure limits are subject to approval by the majority of members of each Chamber if they imply new expenditures of more than 2 million francs at once or 2 million francs on a periodical basis (so-called « expenditure slow-down »).
The Federal Assembly thus decides on the expenditures at Federal level, votes the annual budget (during the Winter Session) and approves the annual account (in the Summer Session).
This authority enables the Federal Assembly to take part in foreign policy-making and to supervise Switzerland’s relations with foreign countries. The Federal Assembly approves international treaties, with the exception of those which fall under the exclusive jurisdiction of the Federal Council pursuant to law or to an international treaty.
The Federal Assembly also has electoral powers which are exercised by both chambers together, under the authority of the president of the National Council. It is in effect parliament which elects the seven members of the Swiss government (the Federal Council) and the Federal Chancellor.
Parliament also elects the members of the federal courts (the Federal Court, the Federal Criminal Court and the Federal Administrative Court) as well as the members of the Military Appeal Court.
Finally, in the case of threat of war, parliament elects a general responsible for leading the federal armed forces.
- Parliament's general supervision duties consist of overseeing the Federal Council and the administration, which are checked as to whether they perform their duties in compliance with the law and in an appropriate and efficient manner.
- General supervision of the Federal Courts: the Federal Assembly verifies that the Federal Tribunal and the Federal Tribunal of Insurance perform their duties. It doesn't involve itself in jurisprudence; it only checks whether cases are carried out within a reasonable time frame, thereby checking that the judicial body is sufficiently staffed and equipped to successfully carry out the law suits submitted to the courts.
- General supervision of other bodies or persons assigned to carry out federal duties (i.e. the Post Office and Federal Railways).
Relations between the Confederation and the cantons
The Federal Assembly sees to the relations between the Confederation and the cantons. It grants Federal guarantee to the Cantonal Constitutions and approves agreements met between them and with foreign Governments when the Federal Council or a canton files a grievance regarding them.
The Federal Assembly rules on granting Federal railway concessions and nuclear power plant construction permits, and on changes to the national road network.
Other areas of competence
- Assessing the efficiency of measures taken by the Confederation;
- Assigning mandates to the Federal Council;
- Enacting the necessary measures to safeguard national security;
- Enforcing the active military service;
- Enforcing Federal Law;
- Acting on validity of popular initiatives which have successfully come about;
- Taking part in important planning procedures regarding State activities;
- Acting on individual deeds Federal Law expressly provides for (especially regarding Railway concessions or building permits for nuclear power plants);
- Acting on remission requests and grants amnesty.