Mr. Winchester to Mr. Bayard.
Berne , June 16, 1886. (Received June 28.)
Sir: The Swiss constitution provides for semi-annual sessions of the Federal Assembly, in June and December. It is the legislative department of the Government, consisting of the council of states and national council, similar to our Senate and House of Representatives. It convened on the 7th instant, the regular summer session. The same custom as in the election of the President of the Confederation is observed in the election of the presiding officers of these two houses, the vice-presidents of last year succeeding to the presidency of their respective bodies. All the officers elected are radicals, save the vice-president of the national council, who is a member of the Right, receiving 93 out of a total vote of 145. This is the first time in the political history of Switzerland that a conservative has been elected an officer in that house. It possesses no political significance, the radicals having a large majority, and his election was a mere tribute to great personal popularity, [Page 848] eminent ability, and long, conspicuous service. The federal council, in what may be called its message to the Assembly, calls special attention to the fact that commercial inquiry shows the treaty with Germany has rendered the position of Swiss commerce intolerable, due to the high customs duties levied by the former upon articles of Swiss importation. Negotiations for the revision or abrogation of the treaty are recommended.
The Swiss legislative department is modeled very closely after that of the United States. Representatives in the national council are apportioned according to population, and are chosen every third year by a direct vote of the people. The council of states is composed of two members from each canton, and it is the duty of each canton to regulate the manner of the election and designate the length of the term of its members of the council of states. A majority of the cantons choose them in the same manner as they do their members of the national council, by a popular vote, and the terms as fixed by the cantons vary from one to three years. Three of the cantons are divided into two cantons, each half-canton being a separate state, complete within itself, as to all domestic affairs, but the old autonomy continues as to senatorial representation, each moiety sending one member to the council of states, and as a rule these members are said to vote on opposite sides on nearly every question, more or less irritation lingering from the original cause of the division of the canton, and therefore their votes and influence are practically destroyed.
The two houses are in every respect co-ordinate, neither superior nor inferior, but each with equal power and dignity. They choose their own officers, a president and vice-president, and the sanction of both is necessary for all legislative action. There is no veto power vested in the executive, and no power in the federal tribunal, the national supreme court, to pass upon the constitutionality of any statute of the Federal Assembly. The judiciary is a creature of the legislative department, being elected by that department every sixth year. The only check provided on the legislative power is the referendum. This may be called a kind of veto. It gives no power to modify a bill, no power to substitute a bill, but is a pure negative. It is a very inconvenient and difficult remedy to apply, and therefore but seldom attempted. The referendum must be demanded within sixty days after the promulgation of the law by the government of eight cantons, or 30,000 voters, whose signatures to the petition must each be legally certified to. The objectionable law will then be submitted to a popular vote.
There is really no President of the Confederation in the sense of an executive. The executive authority is, in fact, deputed to a federal council of seven, who have in charge the various governmental departments, as our Cabinet, but they are elected every third year by the Federal Assembly; and the president of this council, elected also by the Federal Assembly for one year, and not eligible for re-election until after another year has expired, is the chief magistrate of the Republic. He is always assigned to the head of the political department, which embraces foreign affairs. He is invested with no more power than his colleagues of the council, all important matters being considered and determined by them sitting as a body, over which the president presides.
One in visiting the chambers of the Federal Assembly is much impressed with the quiet disptch of business. There is no full report of proceedings published or made, simply minutes taken for record; there is very little space set apart for the public, and even this rarely occupied; the press reporters very few, principally local, and not being [Page 849] stenographers, only prepare for their papers a brief synopsis of the proceedings. There exists, therefore, very little inducement to indulge in bun combe speeches for home constituency and the gallery. The debates are largely confined to an explanation in a conversational style, carried on by questions pro and con from members, as to the pending measure, and as every measure of importance has been considered in advance by the federal council, the member of the council to whose department the subject matter belongs closes the debate with a statement giving the views of the council, which are usually adopted.
The members of the federal council are entitled to be heard, but not to vote, on any measure and at any time, in the Federal Assembly, and their influence is paramount. There is no “previous question” or limitation of time a member of the Assembly is allowed to hold the floor: neither has been found necessary as a guard against the volubility so often found in legislative bodies, to the detriment of business. Elaborately prepared and oratorically delivered speeches would be regarded quite out of place. Yet patient and critical investigation is made of all serious questions. First the measure is drafted by the federal council or a commission named by them, where special or technical information is required; then there is a carefully prepared and exhaustive report, both of which (the bill and the report) are published before being submitted to the Assembly. They are discussed by the people and the press, and when it comes before the Assembly it has been thoroughly digested, opinions formed, and the members prepared to take prompt action. A decision in the Assembly, as a rule, is reached by a standing vote or a ballot cast into an urn passed around the body. The ayes and noes by roll call, which can be called for by twenty members, is very unusual. The compensation of the members is 20 francs per diem during the sitting of the Assembly, with a small mileage to and from the capital. The sessions average three weeks in duration. There are members in both houses who have served continuously since the organization of the Assembly under the constitution of 1848. The change in the membership is mainly the result of death or voluntary retirement.
During a visit to-day to the National Council a new member was sworn in, and it was observed that in elevating his right hand he extended only three fingers, and upon inquiry it was learned that it was intended to show that he was swearing by the Trinity. Three speeches were also heard, each in a different tongue—French, Italian, and German. Two of these languages are recognized as the official languages of the Assembly, and in whichever the president of the chamber speaks, an interpreter, standing near him, repeats what he says in the other. Same as to all bills and reports, and, indeed, all communications made to either house; they must be made and read to the house in both languages. This, of course, retards, and to some extent renders the proceedings tedious, the repetition of long reports, but it is a necessity, as quite a number of the members understand only one or the other of the two languages. The Italian members being very few” and generally familiar with French, an interpreter for that dialect is not required. There is much experience, ability, and high education among the members of the Assembly. A very large majority are past middle age; many very far advanced in years. There is no tendency in Switzerland to abstention of the more educated classes from taking their share in public affairs, local and national. The communes are both nurseries of independence and training schools for higher politics. The rights and duties of a citizen are themes of daily interest and taught in all the secondary and superior schools. They are taught to take a personal and intelligent [Page 850] interest in what concerns the public weal. No man is at liberty to decline public service. Elected by his equals, he takes his turn of office as he takes, in earlier days, his spell of school, and in his later days his spell of camp. Almost every canton puts a clear announcement to the very front in the fundamental law that the business of a public teacher, and the true end of public instruction, is to train their youths to a proper appreciation of the obligations of a citizen and to fit them for life, not only in the family and business, but also in the commune, the state, and the Republic. The words of de Tocqueville, in his account of American democracy—“Politics are the end and aim of education in the United States”—may be truly applied to Switzerland. Not party politics, controversial, office-seeking, electioneering politics, but politics as including in one and the same comprehensive signification, as in the vocabulary of a free country they do, all the relations and obligations of the citizen to the state. This is as it should be. No man liveth to himself in a republic; every man has public duties; every man is a public man; every man holds one high, sacred, all-embracing office—the office of a free citizen. The wide, deep-rooted prevalence and dutiful regard of this sentiment in Switzerland has produced a brave, patriotic, intelligent people, who shrink from no service or sacrifice that is essential for the preservation of their independence and their free institutions.
I am, sir, &c.,