House Republicans picked Bob Livingston to be the next Speaker of the House. He resigned before he was ever instated and it's now widely agreed that Dennis Hastert will take the job. It seems odd that the current House--with 41 members who will be leaving--is picking leaders for the next House. How does it work?
Each House, before it leaves, nominates a set of party leaders for the following House. (For instance, Republican House members nominated Livingston for Speaker in November.) The new House, on its first day of business, chooses leaders from among the Republican and Democratic nominees. Since the vote always cleaves along party lines--and since there are more Republicans than Democrats in the House that begins on Jan. 6, 1999--the Republican nominee will surely win the Speakership. That is why newspaper copy editors began referring to Livingston as the "Speaker-elect" when he won the GOP nomination. Speaker Gingrich--who retains his position until the new House is convened--voluntarily ceded many of his powers and responsibilities to Livingston for the remainder of the year.
Livingston's surprise resignation means the Republicans must nominate someone else for Speaker. They've agreed to hold a nomination election on Jan. 5--one day before the new Congress convenes--for which Hastert is a shoo-in.
Why is the outgoing House allowed to pick the incoming House's leaders? Explainer cannot think of a single good reason. One can't argue that the procedure saves the new House much time, since the nomination voting takes only a single day. On the other hand, it's not so anti-democratic either. Though the law treats the old House and the new House as distinct entities, the two bodies are often almost identical (except in extreme cases, like 1974). Moreover, the old House can't cram a horribly unpopular candidate down the new House's throat, since the majority party can always vote for the minority party's candidate. In fact, some newspapers report that Livingston withdrew because some Republicans threatened to vote for the Democratic nominee for Speaker.