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Good Riddance

Expelling George Santos Did Not Set a Bad Precedent

It was absolutely the right thing to do in this extreme case.

Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call Inc/Getty Images
George Santos in his last moments as a member of the House

New York Representative George Santos etched his name into history on Friday by becoming the twenty-first person to be expelled from the House of Representatives. In a 311114 vote, House members easily met the two-thirds majority vote required for expulsion, with two Democrats voting “present.” Fewer than half of his fellow Republicans—105 out of 221—voted to remove him, as did 206 Democrats.

They were right to do so. Expulsion is a rare move by Congress and for good reason. Lawmakers should not lightly decide to remove someone from their ranks who was sent there by the American people. Some House members expressed reluctance to use that power against a man who has been indicted, but not convicted, of crimes.

But Santos’s actions, both before taking office and since then, met that high threshold. The House Ethics Committee did its due diligence by thoroughly investigating the allegations against him. And while I wouldn’t exactly call Congress an honorable or august body these days, that does not justify keeping a charlatan and a fraudster among its ranks.

How rare is expulsion? More than 10,000 people have served in Congress over the last quarter millennium. Only 20 of them have been expelled from it, five from the House and 15 from the Senate. (This number does not include John Peter Van Ness, whose House seat was declared vacant in 1803 after he accepted a position in the D.C. militia, or vacancies declared for medical reasons.) Of those expulsions, 17 were for members who joined the Confederacy during the Civil War.

The remaining three were separated from one another by almost two centuries. The Senate expelled Tennessee Senator William Blount in 1797 after he conspired to induce Native American tribes and British forces to seize Spanish-controlled territory in Florida and Louisiana. Blount, who had sunk a fortune into speculating on land in Kentucky and Tennessee, feared that a possible French reconquest of New Orleans would deny Americans access to the Mississippi River and thereby destroy the value of the lands. The plot failed after President John Adams learned of it from an intercepted letter.

Aside from the Civil War expulsions, none took place between Blount’s removal and the 1980 ouster of Pennsylvania Representative Michael Myers after the FBI recorded him taking bribes as part of the Abscam investigation. Twenty-two years later, the House also expelled Ohio’s James Traficant after he was convicted of bribery, racketeering, and other crimes. Both men unsuccessfully sought to regain their seats in the following House elections. Myers is in prison for election fraudrelated crimes he committed in the 2010s; Traficant died in a tractor accident in 2014.

Santos, for his part, is facing 23 charges from federal prosecutors for conspiracy, false statements, and multiple kinds of fraud. The House Ethics Committee largely vindicated those allegations in its own investigation. “Representative Santos sought to fraudulently exploit every aspect of his House candidacy for his own personal financial profit,” the committee’s report declared. “He blatantly stole from his campaign. He deceived donors into providing what they thought were contributions to his campaign but were in fact payments for his personal benefit.”

According to investigators, Santos fabricated loans and sought repayment for them from his political committees to enrich himself even further. “He used his connections to high value donors and other political campaigns to obtain additional funds for himself through fraudulent or otherwise questionable business dealings,” the report continued. “And he sustained all of this through a constant series of lies to his constituents, donors, and staff about his background and experience.”

The House Republican leadership, led by Speaker Mike Johnson, opposed his ouster, although they did not pressure members of the GOP caucus to support him on what was functionally a conscience vote. “We’ve not whipped the vote and we wouldn’t,” Johnson told reporters earlier this week. “I trust that people will make that decision thoughtfully and in good faith. I personally have real reservations about doing this, I’m concerned about a precedent that may be set for that.”

Some news outlets suggested that Santos would be the first member of Congress to be expelled without a criminal conviction. That is not even close to true. None of the senators or representatives who were expelled during the Civil War faced indictment, trial, and conviction beforehand. Nor did Blount: After his expulsion, he returned to Tennessee as a fairly popular figure and was even elected to the state legislature before his death in 1800.

The supposed “waiting for conviction” precedent is a fairly new one, built entirely upon the Myers and Traficant examples. It is also flawed in two ways. For one thing, limiting the reasons for expulsion to only what a federal or state prosecutor can charge in court would allow lawmakers to get away with a wide variety of things that aren’t necessarily crimes. Not every moral and ethical wrong is technically a crime in this country. And it would be particularly problematic as the Supreme Court continues to define corruption downward.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, Congress should not outsource its expulsion decisions to the judgment of other branches of government. By requiring conviction as the standard, Congress would effectively let the Justice Department and state prosecutors decide who can and can’t be removed from office. That would be risky on separation of powers grounds under normal circumstances. It is especially foolish in an age where one party’s presidential candidate is openly promising to arrest political opponents on spurious grounds.

Perhaps the most defensible reason for not expelling Santos came from Kentucky Representative Thomas Massie, one of the chamber’s more libertarian members. “Tomorrow I will vote against the motion to overturn the election results of NY’s 3rd Congressional District,” he wrote on Twitter on Thursday night. Massie was not wrong in his analysis of the situation: Removing a member of Congress from their seat is effectively akin to overturning the results of an election, and a democratic society should never do it lightly or easily.

But that presumption also does not apply here. Santos was effectively elected to Congress based on lies; keeping him in office would have only rewarded him for them. We are not talking about the usual lies politicians tell to get elected about what they’ll do when they win. Nor are we talking about mere embellishments, exaggerations, or self-serving omissions. As others have thoroughly documented, Santos deceived the people of New York’s 3rd congressional district about almost every aspect of his life and background.

He lied, for example, about attaining a bachelor’s degree from Baruch College and an MBA from New York University, when in fact he had not graduated from any college. He lied about working for major banks like Citigroup and Goldman Sachs, as a journalist for a Brazilian media outlet, and as a Broadway musical producer, when in fact he mostly worked as a call center representative. He misrepresented at best his purported Jewish ancestry to prospective donors and his constituents; he falsely said his maternal grandparents had survived the Holocaust when they did not even live in Europe at the time. I could go on and on and on.

The American people are well within their rights to vote for fabulists and con artists if they so choose. Donald Trump’s political career is built on that right. But Santos’s constituents did not have sufficient knowledge to make such a choice. The Republican Party failed to do basic due diligence before putting him forth as a candidate. The Democratic Party failed to conduct proper opposition research on him in either of his congressional runs. American journalists, with some notable exceptions, failed to properly investigate Santos’s background until after it was too late. The net effect of all these lies and failures is that through no fault of its own New York’s 3rd congressional district elected a person who didn’t really exist.

Those democratic concerns are also offset by the upcoming election. Expulsion, unlike impeachment, does not permanently disqualify someone from future office. If the voters of Santos’s district disagree with Congress’s decision to expel him, they are free to reelect him to the House next fall. This time, at least, they will actually know who and what they are voting for.