Rep. George Santos, the con man in Congress, misled New York voters with his fabulist resume and so many lies about his past.
But how and whether to hold him accountable is a complicated matter, and it’s becoming clear that if Santos wants to ignore calls to resign, he’ll have his job for the next two years.
That does not mean he’s not in legal peril. Federal prosecutors in New York are investigating his finances. Democrats have asked the House Ethics Committee to look into Santos’ financial disclosures. Authorities in Brazil may revive a 2008 case regarding stolen checks.
Voters get to decide
As those investigations percolate, a growing number of his fellow Republicans in Congress have suggested Santos should resign. Santos remains defiant.
“I was elected by the people,” he said Thursday before ducking into his office, according to CNN’s Capitol Hill team.
Deference to the voters, even though they were misled, is also the view being taken by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
“The voters of his district have elected him. He is seated. He is part of the Republican Conference,” McCarthy told CNN’s Manu Raju on Thursday, making clear that House GOP leaders have no plans to dislodge Santos from his seat but that he will be kept from top congressional committees.
Republicans’ majority relies on Santos
While technically possible, it is extremely difficult and rare for the House to expel one of its own. That’s by design. It’s voters and no one else who get to choose their representative to the House. Voters get a say with regular frequency every two years.
Republicans might be frustrated by Santos’ falsehoods, but they would be loath to lose his vote. Their majority in the House is small enough to count on one hand, and Santos’ Long Island district is extremely competitive.
His victory in November helped give Republicans the slim edge they now have. If he were to resign, there would be a special election to replace him and the real possibility the GOP’s House seat tally could fall from 222 to 221.
Expelling a member is rare
Only five sitting members have been expelled from the House. Three of those occurred during the Civil War when representatives from Missouri and Kentucky were dismissed for fighting for the Confederacy.
The other two, Democrats Michael Myers of Pennsylvania in 1980 and James Traficant of Ohio in 2002, were both convicted of bribery.
Voters have been known to opt for less-than-honest lawmakers. Then-Rep. William Jefferson, a Louisiana Democrat, was reelected in 2006 despite being the subject of a corruption investigation in which the FBI discovered he was hoarding cash in his freezer. He was later defeated in his 2008 bid for reelection and spent time in jail after he was convicted.
Pressure to resign can be fearsome
More frequently, it is shame and pressure to resign that lead misbehaving lawmakers to give up their seats. That’s what then-Rep. Trey Radel, a Florida Republican, ultimately did months after he was caught buying cocaine from an undercover police officer in Washington, DC, in 2013.
Republican leaders also pressured another Florida Republican, then-Rep. Mark Foley, to resign in 2006 after a scandal involving inappropriate messages to teenage House pages.
But in this current case, McCarthy does not appear to be pressuring Santos to leave.
Sometimes voters don’t mind
While the list of members actually expelled from Congress is short, there’s a much larger universe of members who have been censured or reprimanded by their colleagues. The rebukes might be embarrassing, but they are far from career-enders.
Then-Rep. Gerry Studds of Massachusetts, the first out gay member of Congress, was one of two lawmakers censured by near-unanimous House votes in 1983 for sexual misconduct with an underage House page. Voters gave Studds a pass and sent him back to Congress until he retired in 1997. The other lawmaker reprimanded for sex with an underage page, then-Rep. Dan Crane of Illinois, lost his bid for reelection.
Then-Rep. Duncan Hunter of California won reelection in 2018 after he was indicted along with his wife for misusing campaign funds. He later pleaded guilty before resigning from Congress. Hunter was pardoned by former President Donald Trump.
An opportunity to ‘earn trust’
McCarthy said Santos will have a “long way to go to earn trust” before he can be given things like top-secret clearance.
While the House Ethics Committee is involved in reviewing Santos’ behavior, Congress does not have a track record of taking forceful actions against its own when they behave poorly.
Congress actually created a separate entity, the Office of Congressional Ethics, made up of an appointed board rather than lawmakers, to receive and investigate complaints about members of Congress.
In an awkward bit of timing, the GOP-led House voted this week to tweak the Office of Congressional Ethics, scaling back on its staff and making other changes critics say will defang it.