German Policymakers Beyond the Cabinet
Senior Fellow; Director, Society, Culture & Politics Program
Dr. Eric Langenbacher is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Society, Culture & Politics Program at AICGS.
Dr. Langenbacher studied in Canada before completing his PhD in Georgetown University’s Government Department in 2002. His research interests include collective memory, political culture, and electoral politics in Germany and Europe. Recent publications include the edited volumes Twilight of the Merkel Era: Power and Politics in Germany after the 2017 Bundestag Election (2019), The Merkel Republic: The 2013 Bundestag Election and its Consequences (2015), Dynamics of Memory and Identity in Contemporary Europe (co-edited with Ruth Wittlinger and Bill Niven, 2013), Power and the Past: Collective Memory and International Relations (co-edited with Yossi Shain, 2010), and From the Bonn to the Berlin Republic: Germany at the Twentieth Anniversary of Unification (co-edited with Jeffrey J. Anderson, 2010). With David Conradt, he is also the author of The German Polity, 10th and 11th edition (2013, 2017),
Dr. Langenbacher remains affiliated with Georgetown University as Teaching Professor and Director of the Honors Program in the Department of Government. He has also taught at George Washington University, Washington College, The University of Navarre, and the Universidad Nacional de General San Martin in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and has given talks across the world. He was selected Faculty Member of the Year by the School of Foreign Service in 2009 and was awarded a Fulbright grant in 1999-2000 and the Hopper Memorial Fellowship at Georgetown in 2000-2001. Since 2005, he has also been Managing Editor of German Politics and Society, which is housed in Georgetown’s BMW Center for German and European Studies. Dr. Langenbacher has also planned and run dozens of short programs for groups from abroad, as well as for the U.S. Departments of State and Defense on a variety of topics pertaining to American and comparative politics, business, culture, and public policy.
Similar to any modern democratic political system, power in Germany is concentrated in the cabinet—currently with fifteen ministers controlling various policy areas and respective bureaucracies. There is, of course, also the chancellor exercising oversight over the entire government and setting the policy course (Richtlinienkompetenz) and a rather powerful minister-level head of the chancellery (Wolfgang Schmidt). Within this cabinet of seventeen, there is also an explicit and implicit hierarchy. The vice chancellor, who always has his/her own portfolio—presently Robert Habeck with the Economics Ministry–comes just after the chancellor, followed by the powerful finance minister, the interior minister, and the foreign minister. (The British tellingly deem these ministries the Great Offices of State.) And the politicians who hold these offices are usually the most prominent politicians from their respective parties, exemplified by FDP leader and Finance Minister Christian Lindner. But this is not always the case as shown by current Interior Minister Nancy Faeser, who was little known outside of her home state of Hesse until taking over this powerful portfolio.
Beyond the cabinet, however, there are a variety of other less well-known political offices that can also be quite influential. Two groups are especially noteworthy. First are the state secretaries (Staatssekretär), known as ministers of state (Staatsminister) in the foreign office and chancery, and called parliamentary state secretaries (Parlamentarische Staatssekretär) when the individual is also a sitting member of the Bundestag. It is useful to think of these individuals as deputy ministers. They serve at the discretion of the minister (and therefore have a partisan leaning even though this is not a fully political position) and are the administrative heads of ministries. Often, they have responsibility for specific policy areas. For example, State Secretary Werner Gatzer in the finance ministry is responsible for the federal budget, privatization, industrial holdings and federal real estate, and information technology. The parliamentary state secretaries are meant also to be bridges or liaisons to the two chambers of parliament and the parliamentary caucuses.
In the current government, there are 69 people at this level, consisting of 36 state secretaries and 33 parliamentary state secretaries.[i] The numbers vary: the new housing, urban development, and building ministry has only three (justice only two), but the transportation, finance, and foreign ministries have six, and interior and economics have seven each.
Second are commissioners (Beauftragter) and coordinators (Koordinator) of the federal government. These individuals are housed in various ministries and have a very specific policy portfolio. These individuals are sometimes simultaneously state secretaries or parliamentary state secretaries. For instance, one of the three state secretaries in the interior ministry is Dr. Markus Richter, who is also the commissioner for information technology. The government lists 35 commissioners and coordinators.[ii] At times, the nomenclature is opaque—the foreign office has a Coordinator for Transatlantic Relations (currently Michael Link, who is also a member of the Bundestag for the FDP), but a Commissioner for German-French Cooperation, currently Anna Lührmann, who is also a member of the Bundestag and a State Minister (would be a parliamentary state secretary in another ministry) responsible for Europe and the climate. Perhaps the most visible commissioners are located in the chancery: the Commissioner for Culture and Media (Claudia Roth, a former Green leader and a Vice President of the Bundestag), the Commissioner for Migration, Refugees and Integration (Reem Alabali-Radovan), and the Commissioner for Eastern Germany (Carsten Schneider).
Mention should also be made of some of the positions in the Bundestag. Especially influential are the caucus chairs and the deputy caucus chairs. The current SPD caucus (Fraktion) is headed by Rolf Mützenich, backed up by eight deputies chairs (with specific policy emphases like Verena Hubertz, responsible for the economy, construction, housing, and tourism) and then five parliamentary managers (parliamentarische Geschäftsführer:innen), and others.
The Bundestag president (Bärbel Bas, SPD) and five vice presidents (representing all of the other parties except for the Alternative for Germany) are also influential in running the parliament, overseeing personnel, and providing oversight. All of these political positions liaise with the ministers and state secretaries—the parliamentary state secretaries sit simultaneously in both a ministry and a caucus. Moreover, many of the most prominent politicians and policy experts, as well as rising stars will move across many of these positions, starting in the caucus and eventually becoming a parliamentary state secretary and maybe even a minister. These are influential people to watch.
To help navigate the complexities of the German political system and public policy process, AICGS is kicking off an occasional series of short articles, profiling many of these powerful behind-the-scenes politicians and policymakers. These are intended to show the background, policy stances, and likely policy direction of these powerful and influential individuals.
[i] Compiled from ministerial websites accessed through https://www.bundesregierung.de/breg-en/federal-cabinet.