Expel George Santos? Some fear terrible precedent despite his terrible record
Let’s stipulate up front that Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) has told lies that have, despite these divided times, brought an overwhelming majority of lawmakers to the conclusion he never should have served a day in Congress.
Santos had to appear in court on Friday, pleading not guilty to 23 federal charges. The allegations include 10 new felony counts such as money laundering and identity theft related to his congressional races, coming after a guilty plea from Santos’s campaign treasurer earlier this month for helping the embattled lawmaker commit these alleged crimes.
“He should absolutely resign,” former congressman Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) said in an interview Friday.
However, having served eight years on the House Ethics Committee, including two as chair, Dent will say out loud what many lawmakers are afraid to say in public: Santos should not be voted out of office.
At least not a few days from now when some politically endangered Republicans from Santos’s neighboring districts, tired of being tied to the embarrassing freshman, plan to force an expulsion vote to the full House.
During the more than 230 years of congressional history, just five members have been expelled by the House: three for disloyalty to the Union during the Civil War and two in the last 45 years after they had been convicted in federal court in felony corruption cases.
Santos has not been charged with treason, nor has he been convicted of a crime — not yet anyway. In addition, an ongoing Ethics Committee investigation is just that: ongoing.
“Members have to be concerned about the precedents they’re setting,” Dent said Friday. “It would set quite a precedent.”
This expulsion vote, which requires a two-thirds majority to oust Santos, will serve as the highlight of several votes that could be filed under the broad umbrella of the “privileged resolution wars.”
It’s part of a growing effort to bypass anything resembling a legitimate investigative process. Instead, it moves straight to empaneling the entire House to serve as instant prosecutors, judges and juries for misdeeds that would probably be better served with a somber and, yes, slow-moving investigation from the ethics panel.
The Israel-Hamas war has prompted a dueling set of resolutions offered by rank-and-file members to censure members over controversial statements. First, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) has offered a resolution under the “privileged” status that requires a vote within a couple of days to censure Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) over recent statements in support of Palestinians and for speaking out at a rally inside a congressional office building demanding a cease-fire.
Tlaib, one of 10 lawmakers to oppose Wednesday’s resolution condemning Hamas and voicing support for Israel, called Greene’s resolution “Islamophobic.” In return, Rep. Becca Balint (D-Vt.), filed a privileged resolution that would censure Greene for years of controversial statements that many considered antisemitic.
In the history of the House, just 25 members have been censured, almost half of them related to the Civil War or slavery and the Reconstruction period. Most censures of the post-World War II era came after lengthy investigations into bad behavior. That’s what happened after then-Rep. Gerry Studds’s (D-Mass.) relationship with a House page in the 1980s came to light, as well as the censure in 2010 of then-Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) over charges that he used his position to personally benefit from an education nonprofit he created.
But starting in 2021, when Democrats censured Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) after he posted violent videos showing animated videos of him attacking lawmakers, the House has practically turned into a censure-on-demand palace.
No investigation took place — just an instant, near party-line vote to offer the highest form of punishment short of expulsion. A dozen or two of Gosar’s closest conservative allies stood in the well of the House alongside him as a show of defiance when the charges against him were read in public.
Republicans returned the favor in June when they censured Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), whom they had already voted to remove from the House Intelligence Committee, for his actions investigating then-President Trump late last decade. Nearly 100 Democrats gathered in the well with Schiff, shouting down then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) as he read the charges into the record.
Rather than creating a sense of shame, these instant censures just add to the sense of political celebrity in the effort to gain attention. Schiff, who is now running for the Senate, has been open about how that censure helped boost his already hefty campaign account.
Not long ago — even though it sometimes feels like decades ago — misbehaving Republicans and Democrats alike used to feel political heat under the speakerships of Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.).
Former congressman Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) resigned in 2011 after a social media sex scandal. Former House member Chris Lee (R-N.Y.) resigned earlier that year when he was caught soliciting extramarital partners online. And former lawmaker Mark Souder (R-Ind.) resigned in 2010 after having an affair with an aide.
Onetime congressman Vito Fossella (R-N.Y.) was arrested while driving drunk in the Virginia suburbs, telling police he was on his way to see his family — which turned out to be true, just not his family in Staten Island. His mistress and child lived out there. He resigned once it was all exposed.
“Members used to be able to feel shame,” Dent lamented.
Now, outlandish behavior gets attention, and party leaders have less ability to force lawmakers to resign. And the other party, driven by the instantaneous news cycle of revenge, doesn’t have the patience to file an ethics complaint and wait the year or more required for an investigation.
Santos’s situation presents the most difficult of all. He has lost whatever credibility he might have had at the start of the year, when he was known merely as a serial fabulist, as an investigation has unearthed charges of serious criminal behavior.
The federal judge set his trial for next September, meaning a verdict wouldn’t be likely until later in the fall. By then he will have almost run out the clock and served a full term in Congress, even as his chances of winning his party’s nomination have shrunk to nonexistent.
Despite pledges from McCarthy of a speedy Ethics Committee probe, there’s no hint of when that will end. And much of the panel’s work will likely sidestep the criminal behavior under the purview of the Justice Department, to not interfere with that federal inquiry.
The slow-moving pace has driven a group of New York Republicans, all in the same media market as Santos and all in politically tough districts, to the breaking point. They don’t want to be associated with him anymore and want him gone, sooner rather than later.
When they broached their plan to force an expulsion vote in a few days, new House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) told them privately that they should do whatever is in their best political interest.
“Do what’s right and do what’s right for back home,” Johnson said, according to the account several of the Republicans gave to reporters after filing the motion on Thursday.
There’s a problem with that. Expulsion from Congress simply is not intended to alleviate political pain.
A conservative constitutional lawyer by training, Johnson appeared to realize that later Thursday night in his first interview as speaker, telling Fox News that Santos did deserve “due process.”
“If we’re going to expel people from Congress just because they’re charged with a crime, or accused, that’s a problem,” he said.
The New Yorkers feel that a guilty plea from Santos’s treasurer serves as enough legal confirmation to warrant instant expulsion. “You have a guilty plea in court by his treasurer confirming significant details,” Rep. Michael Lawler (R-N.Y.) said.
“You’re not dealing with somebody who is a rational human being,” Lawler added.
Rep. Anthony D’Esposito (R-N.Y.) noted that McCarthy’s ouster as speaker, and the more than three weeks it took to find Johnson as his replacement, left the GOP caucus in an internal feud that left them leaderless.
That helped prompt their decision to force the Santos issue, D’Esposito told reporters. “We seem to settle a lot of family business in the House this week. This is one of those things that has gone on for too long, and it feels good that we’re making progress toward the resolution.”
Dent understands this exasperation, both with Santos and other misdeeds that prompted the competing censure resolutions. He said it’s time for “cooler heads” to prevail between Johnson and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), to pull back all these instant verdicts in the ethics wars.
“There could be a lot of censure resolutions for reckless behavior,” Dent said. “This won’t be the last expulsion motion.”