Mr. Winchester to Mr. Bayard.
Berne , December 15, 1887. (Received January 3, 1888.)
Sir: “The directorial authority and superior executive power,” of the Swiss Confederation is vested by the constitution in a “Bundesrath,” or Federal Council, composed of seven members, who are elected by the Federal Assembly, the State and National Council, sitting in joint session. Their term of service is for three years, the same as the members of the Federal Assembly, and the council is wholly renewable after each renewal of the National Council in the lower branch of the Federal Assembly. The latter body having been elected in October, convened in regular session on the 5th instant, and in joint session on Tuesday, the 13th, reelected all the present members of the Federal Council for three years, beginning the 1st of January, 1888. Six of the seven members are classed as Radical-Democrats and one as Conservative. The Federal Council act as ministers in chief of the seven administrative departments of the Republic, and under a new organization of these departments, to go into force January 1, they are classified in the following manner: (1) Political and commerce; (2) interior and public works; (3) justice and police; (4) military; (5) finance and customs duties; (6) industry and agriculture; (7) railways, posts, and telegraphs.
A full and specific statement of the redistribution of all the subordinate [Page 1513] bureaus under this re-organization of the departments was furnished in my dispatch of May 13, 1887, No. 124.
These departments are allotted by the members of the council after their election in such manner as they may adopt, and it is said so far it has not been found necessary to establish any arbitrary method, the assignments being made by an agreeable understanding among themselves. There is no question of rank involved, each being of equal dignity, the constitution declaring that the allotment has simply for its object “to facilitate the examination and expedition of business, and all decisions must emanate from the council as their authority.” It can only hold its deliberations when four members are present, and is presided over by the President of the Confederation, he being a member of the council and chief of one of the departments.
In no case can more than one member of the Federal Council be chosen from the same canton, and a well-established custom assigns one member to each of the cantons of Berne, Zurich, Vaud, Aargau, and St. Galle or Thurgau, with one each to the Swiss Catholics and to the Italian Swiss. The qualifications for the members are the same as for members of the National Council, in which body, as well as in the Council of State (Senate), they have a consultative voice and the right to submit motions in matters under consideration. Their salary is 12,000 francs per annum, or $2,316; the President, receiving 1,500 francs additional annually, or $2,605; and they can not during the term of their service fill any other employment, either in the service of the Confederation or in a canton, nor can they pursue any other career or practice any profession (article 97, constitution).
The attributes and obligations of the Federal Council within the limits of the present constitution are thus described:
- It directs federal affairs conformably to the laws and decrees of the Confederation.
- It guards the observance of the constitution, laws, and decrees of the Confederation, as well as the prescriptions of federal concordats. It takes of its own accord or on complaint the necessary measures to secure such observance when the remedy is not of the number of those which are to be brought before the federal tribunal in accordance with article 113.
- It watches over the guaranty of the cantonal constitutions.
- It presents projects for laws or decrees to the Federal Assembly and gives its opinion in advance on propositions submitted to it by the councils in the cantons.
- It provides for the execution of the laws and decrees of the Confederation, and for that of the judgments of the federal tribunals, as well as of the proceedings or arbitration sentences in points of difference between cantons.
- It makes all appointments not assigned either to the Federal Assembly, to the federal tribunal, or to any other authority.
- It examines treaties of the cantons among themselves or with foreign powers, and approves them if there is ground. (Article 85, page 4.)
- It guards the interests of the Confederation abroad, especially in the observation of its international relations, and it is in general charged with care of foreign relations.
- It guards the external safety of Switzerland, to the maintenance of its independence and its neutrality.
- It guards the internal safety of the Confederation, to the maintenance of trail quillity and order.
- In a case of urgency, and where the Federal Assembly is not in session, the Federal Council is authorized to raise the necessary troops and to make disposition of them, under condition of immediately convoking the councils when the number of troops raised exceeds 2,000 men, or if they remain under arms longer than three weeks.
- It is charged with all that concerns the federal military, as well as with all the other branches of administration pertaining to the Confederation.
- It examines those laws and ordinances of the cantons which must be submitted for its approval; it exercises a surveillance over those branches of cantonal administration which are placed under its control.
- It administers the finances of the Confederation, proposes the budget, and renders the accounts of receipts and expenditures.
- It watches over the administration of all officials and employés of the Federal Government.
- It renders account of its administration to the Federal Assembly at each regular session; presents a report to the same on the condition of the Confederation, as well in regard to domestic as foreign affairs, and recommends to its attention those measures which it deems useful to the increase of the common prosperity. It renders also special reports on demand of the Federal Assembly or one of its branches.
- It has authority to call in experts on special subjects.
These provisions are all contained in a chapter of the constitution styled “Bundersrath,” or Federal Council.
The same sure tenure of service shown by my dispatch No. 169 to exist in the Federal Assembly prevails in the Federal Council. Indeed, the changes, almost without exception, are entirely voluntary.
In some remarks recently made by the President in a public meeting the Swiss view of public business and officials is well expressed. He said:
Facts and not persons are what interest us. If you were to take ten Swiss, every one of them would know whether the country was well governed or not. But I venture to say that nine of them would not be able to tell the name of the President, and the tenth, who might think that he knew it, would be mistaken.
The Federal Council in its present form came into existence with the constitution of 1848, the first election of its members taking place in November of that year. The election, therefore, occurring on the 13th instant was the fourteenth triennial renewal of the council, and covering a period of thirty-nine years. During this time twenty-seven names complete the list of persons who have been elected members. Of these seven died during the term of service, eleven voluntarily retired, leaving only two who have been defeated for re-election, one on a personal, the other on political grounds. It should be remarked that this most remarkable conservatism in retaining these high officials in their places and the greatest power and influence under the Government has survived angry and fundamental questions of public policy, such as the revisions of the constitution in 1871 and 1874, in reference to which the members of the council were divided, and actively participated in the discussions of the various issues, in many instances antagonizing the views of the majority in the assembly to which they owed their election, and who were expected to continue them in office. The election on the 13th instant was practically unanimous, there being no organized opposition, and only a few scattering votes cast for other names. The seven men elected, or rather re elected, are Dr. Karl Schenk, of Berne, in service since 1863; Emil Welti, of Aargau, since 1866) B. Hammer, of Solothura, since 1875; N. Droz, of Neuenberg, since 1875; W. Hertenstein, of Zurich, since 1879; L. Ruchonnet, of Waadt, since 1881; A. Doucher, of Thurgau, since 1883.
All of these gentlemen have served their turn as President except Mr. Hertenstein, Messrs. Schenk and Welti having served in that capacity each five times.
Organized thus on the departmental system, with a very close scrutiny by the whole people, the chiefs of the various departments manifest great activity, with much laborious detail work, in their respective dominions. In no country are the affairs of public interest considered in a more earnest, critical, and patriotic spirit than they are by the Federal Council of Switzerland. As a rule they are men of a high order of natural ability, well educated, and thoroughly disciplined in the public service. Of course it is one thing to provide the machinery of government for a small state, and quite another to meet the requirements of many millions of people. Switzerland, seeking no alliances, [Page 1515] conquests, nor colonies, from topographical peculiarities, the interests of jealous neighbors, and the traditional habits of a peasant population, well trained to provincial self-government, assured in the permanence of a democratic federation, has worked out an eminently wise and simple form of government. There is an orderly and systematic arrangement of the governing bodies and areas—communes grouped into districts, districts into cantons, cantons into the Confederation; the small size, great independence, and many functions of these small groups seem to produce good results in contentment, order, economical administration, and a clean and efficient public service, with light taxation.
I am, etc.,