Every Single Word: A New Data Set Including All Parliamentary Materials Published in Germany

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Parliamentary documents like written and oral questions, motions or bills represent an invaluable data source for political scientists in various fields of the discipline. They allow researchers to address topics as diverse as representation and responsiveness, parliamentary agendas and parliamentary organization (Koß 2015; Jensen et al. 2013; Metz und Jäckle 2016; Bailer 2011; Elsässer et al. 2017; Manow 2013; Bäck et al. 2014; Bird 2005; Celis 2006; Mügge et al. 2019; Saalfeld 2011). However, studies often remain limited to short periods of time and few types of documents and/or policy areas, because the process of gathering the required documents and preparing them for analyses is very time-consuming and resource-intensive. In the absence of comprehensive data sets covering all written parliamentary communication in a country, political scientists thus get only a glimpse of the full picture.

In our recent publication in Government and Opposition, we introduce a novel data set containing the full official record of the Bundestag between 1949 and 2017, amounting to a total of 131,835 documents, which will enrich researchers’ data sources. It includes requests, responses and briefings, reports, bills and decrees, as well as proposals submitted by legislators, party parliamentary groups, committees or the government. In addition to entailing the documents’ titles and full texts, our data set also includes document-related details, such as the date of submission as well as the names of the authors. Hence, we provide scholars in the field with easy access to original texts and additional information that can be analysed in both quantitative and qualitative terms and complement existing databases concerned with parliamentary speeches or roll-call voting behaviour.

To develop our data set, we made use of the Bundestag website’s open data repository (Bundestag 2018), where all of the parliament’s written communication during the first 18 legislative periods can be downloaded as XML files. These files contain the full text of the respective document, as well as a variety of additional information, which we retrieved using the statistical software R, and especially the R packages XML (Lang 2019) and stringr (Wickham 2019). For each document, this allows us to include: (1) the full text; (2) information describing the document in detail (type of document, subject line, date of submission, running number (Drucksache), legislative period); and (3) author information (name(s), party/institutional affiliation(s)).

Bearing in mind the needs future researchers might have when working with our data, we also provide two add-ons. First, we suppose that many researchers will want to combine our data with additional information about representatives such as gender, party ideology, electoral safety or parliamentary posts. Comprehensive information on German legislators’ characteristics was recently published by Henning Bergmann et al. (2018) and – where appropriate – we provide an identifier that allows the two data sets to be merged. Second, if all written questions are summarized in a single document, scholars might want to make use of text fragments by single authors rather than overall published documents. That is why we reshaped the documents into a data set with text units per author as observations, separating requests where necessary. We therefore provide researchers with two data sets ready for analysis.

We identify six substantially different types of documents: requests, responses, reports, bills and decrees, motions, and others. They vary in the eligible authors, the intended receivers and the type of content they provide, making them a rich and valuable source of information. Details on every type of document are provided in the table below.

Table 1: Types of Documents Included in the Data Set with Details

To give readers a clearer idea of how this data set can enrich the field of legislative studies, we present brief exemplary analyses. First, we demonstrate how MPs’ legislative productivity can be measured across the different document types, comparing future chairpersons to their party colleagues, with the intention of identifying typical career patterns of politicians.

Legislative careers: progressive ambition and legislative output – Does diligence pay off?

Research on legislative career patterns has been greatly influenced by ambition theory (Schlesinger 1966). Joseph Schlesinger’s seminal work distinguished three different types of ambition among legislators: discrete, static and progressive. Whilst representatives exhibiting discrete ambition only want to hold their office or mandate for the specified term, static-ambitious legislators do seek re-election, but do not aspire to higher or more prestigious positions. An MP with progressive ambition, in turn, aims to move up the career ladder to a position or ‘an office more important than the one he now seeks or is holding‘ (Schlesinger 1966, S. 10). Schlesinger argued that the different types of ambition should also manifest in distinct legislative behaviour and attitudes.

In the German case, bills and other legislative initiatives are almost without exception introduced by the government or party groups. Nevertheless, groups of MPs in the Bundestag can theoretically table motions and minor or major requests independently from their party through a quorum of 5% of all members and they occasionally do take such action (Ismayr 2012, 218; 321; 326; 405). We hence aim to see whether legislators with progressive ambition are more likely to engage in activities independent of or opposed to their party group. 

To test this expectation, we analyse the frequency with which MPs submit motions and interpellations, under the condition that they were tabled without the support of a party group.[i] We compare MPs who would in a future electoral period chair a select committee with the figures for all MPs in the respective period. Not least because the Bundestag represents a working parliament, committee chairs can be considered important and prestigious leadership positions in the German legislative branch. Members eventually chairing a select committee in parliament can thus be expected to exhibit relatively high levels of progressive ambition, which should in turn find expression in an above-average legislative output, as well as the desire to gain visibility and reputation. The analysis covers the first to sixteenth legislative periods and, during this time, the number of minor interpellations without the support of a party group amounts to 1,730, while the number of different motions meeting this criterion comes to 1,145.[ii]

Figure 3: Average number of non-party interpellations and proposals by all MPs.

The above figure allows us to compare the mean number of non-party interpellations and proposals of all future committee chairpersons to the overall average per MP. Firstly, the results show that the mean values for both types of communication fluctuate strongly over the course of the period under investigation. While the sixth electoral period saw record numbers of 21.8 interpellations per MP and 30.8 per future committee chairperson, almost no interpellations without the support of a party group were tabled between the ninth and eleventh as well as between the fourteenth and sixteenth electoral period. Similarly, the mean numbers of non-party motions also differ substantially over time, and scarcely any were put forward during the sixth, eighth and ninth electoral periods. Where the means are not close to zero, however, we find some support for our expectation: With very few exceptions, MPs who would eventually go on to chair a select committee are indeed more inclined than the average legislator to table non-party motions or interpellations. Taking legislative matters into one’s own hands therefore appears to be a practicable strategy to gain visibility and reputation, even though it involves bypassing a party group and its leaders.

By Tobias Remschel and Corinna Kroeber in January 2021

Tobias Remschel is a PhD candidate at the Leuphana University of Lüneburg. His research focuses on women’s political representation and the role of committee hearings in the legislative process.

[i] Proposals include amendment proposals (Änderungsantrag) and resolution proposals (Entschließungsantrag); interpellations include minor interpellations (Kleine Anfrage) and major interpellations (Große Anfrage).

[ii] To receive the additional information of if and when a given MP chaired a select committee, we merge our data with Bergmann et al.’s data set (2018), which provides a plethora of additional data for all legislators in the Bundestag between the first and seventeenth electoral periods. Thus, our analysis of future committee chairs’ legislative output covers the timespan between the first and sixteenth electoral periods, from 1949 to 2009.


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