It won’t be too long before George Santos fades into obscurity, at least as far as Congress is concerned. Before that happens, though, it’s worth spending a moment on his expulsion, because this was one of those rare instances where the House set an example its future self should follow.
To understand why, it’s helpful to remember two key points. First, the House Ethics Committee report issued in mid-November was a bombshell, laying out a case that, as the report put it, Santos “sought to fraudulently exploit every aspect of his House candidacy for his own personal financial profit.” And second, separately from what was going on in Congress, Santos has been charged with illegally defrauding his donors and using their money for personal benefit, as well as with additional charges that include identity theft. That case is still in the courts.
Pressure to do something about Santos, of course, has been percolating in the House since even before he took office, after The New York Times published an exposé a couple of weeks before his swearing in. Its headline said it all: “Who is Rep.-Elect George Santos? His Resume May Be Largely Fiction.” Months of revelations about his lies followed. Then came not one, but two separate attempts—both unsuccessful—to expel him. They failed in large measure because House members who were reluctant to take a step as momentous as expelling one of their own wanted to wait until the Ethics Committee investigation was finished.
When the bipartisan report was finally published, it left no room for doubt that committee members—the members of Congress most familiar with Santos’s dealings—believed he should be kicked out of office. The first two sentences of the report made that clear, stating that “the evidence uncovered by the Investigative Subcommittee (ISC) revealed that Representative George Santos cannot be trusted. At nearly every opportunity, he placed his desire for private gain above his duty to uphold the Constitution, federal law, and ethical principles.”
One key thing to remember is that in these highly partisan times, the House hasn’t always been so patient. In recent years, the House has censured members (GOP Rep. Paul Gosar in 2021, Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff in 2023) by bringing those measures directly to the floor—thus bypassing not only the Ethics Committee and its bipartisan process, but its ability to constrain destructive partisan passions. In the Santos case, the fact that the House waited until the committee had done its work gave the next step bipartisan legitimacy—especially since the expulsion resolution members considered was one brought up by the GOP chair of the committee, rather than a separate measure that had been filed by two members of the Democratic minority.
At the same time, although there were plenty of legislators and commentators arguing that the House should wait until after Santos was tried on his legal charges, it moved ahead on its own. This was the right thing to do. It’s worth remembering that the original name of the Ethics Committee when it was set up in 1967 (full disclosure: I sat on the commission that helped set it up) was the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, and that from the beginning, its role has been to consider the impact of members’ actions on the integrity of the House. In other words, disciplinary proceedings are not about the legality of a member’s actions, but about conduct that discredits the House as an institution. This is something members need to decide, not judges or juries.
Once the Ethics Committee did the key job of sorting out the basic facts and determining that what Santos had done harmed the House by discrediting it and its members, it was appropriate for the full House to act. It didn’t need to wait for the legal charges to wind their way through the courts.
In the end, then, the House served itself and the American people well by putting two vital considerations front and center. First, it followed bipartisan procedure. Second, it focused on an assault on the integrity of the institution. Let’s hope it valued the experience enough to repeat it in the future.
Note: Lee Hamilton's Comments on Congress will return on Wednesday, January 10th, 2024.