Republicans say they’re simply following “due process.” Democrats say they’re trying to do right by voters and Congress. And all the while, as the two sides bicker, indicted Rep. George Santos (R-NY) will remain in Congress.
After Republicans turned a long-shot motion to kick Santos out of Congress into a vote to refer the matter to the Ethics Committee, Democrats were quick to cry foul, complaining that Republicans were just using “due process” as an excuse to keep Santos in Congress indefinitely.
The House voted 221-204-7 on Wednesday along party lines, with seven Democrats voting present, on a procedural motion to refer the matter of Santos’ expulsion to the Ethics Committee. That decision will allow Santos to continue serving while a slow-moving judicial process takes place, and it gives Republicans the cover they wanted to not remove Santos. (They didn’t vote to not remove Santos; they simply voted to refer the matter to the Ethics Committee.)
Republicans said they wanted to wait for either House Ethics to hand down some recommended sanctions, or for Santos to be formally convicted after his indictment on 13 federal charges last week, to actually remove Santos from Congress. But as Democrats noted, all Republicans really did was buy Santos—and themselves—some time.
Ethics investigations are slow. Prosecutions for criminal misconduct are potentially even slower. And the Department of Justice generally asks House Ethics not to investigate something they are also investigating.
By delaying a Santos expulsion, Republicans get to keep their slim majority from getting even slimmer—particularly ahead of critical votes on the debt limit and federal budget. If he were to be expelled, or to resign, it would spark a special election in his swing district, which went to President Joe Biden in 2020.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-C) has urged House Ethics to move “rapidly.” And he’s insisted the committee will move forward, even if DOJ objects.
Still, not all of his members think it’s that simple.
“Does Ethics ever work quickly? It’s kinda hard to say,” said Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC) on Wednesday. “I will vote to refer it to ethics, that’s the right move. In the past we have expelled members when there's a conviction. I did a little bit of research on the history and precedent and that's how we've done it in the past… but I will say this: George Santos should resign. Period.”
Santos has a year-and-a-half left in office, in which he’ll live on a taxpayer-funded salary, receive the perks of staff and resources given to members of Congress, and be the voice representing his hundreds of thousands of constituents. He’s running for re-election, too, and has shown no willingness to resign.
All the same, every single House Republican in attendance on Wednesday voted in favor of sending the referendum to the Ethics Committee. Democrats voted against, except for seven Democrats that voted present, most of whom were on the Ethics Committee themselves. (It’s highly unusual for members on House Ethics to vote on a referendum to come to them—and the support from House Republicans raised some eyebrows.)
Three members—two Democrats and one Republican—simply didn’t vote.
A number of House Republicans have called on Santos to resign. But it seems that outright expelling him is a different story—as even those anti-Santos Republicans fell in line with McCarthy plan Wednesday.
Some Republicans have justified their opposition to expulsion by insisting it’s a political move by Democrats—and that expulsion historically has been reserved for members who are already convicted.
Democrats say it’s a matter of not kicking the can down the road—and getting Santos out sooner rather than later.
“Republicans in the House now have an opportunity to stand with the American public and their constituents or to stand with someone who has been indicted on 13 counts,” Rep. Robert Garcia (D-CA), who introduced the resolution, said at a press conference Wednesday morning. “We also understand that expulsion is serious.”
Another frequent critic of Santos, freshman Rep. Dan Goldman (D-NY), was emphatic that criminal standards of law shouldn’t be the standard for serving in Congress.
“We should not be in a body where criminal law concepts of due process dictate whether or not someone belongs here,” Goldman said. “The measure of whether someone deserves to be a member of Congress is not merely whether they are a criminal or not.”
In the past, there has been a high bar for expelling a member of Congress, one even Santos hasn’t quite reached. The last expulsion happened two decades ago after Rep. Jim Traficant (D-OH) was convicted for bribery, tax evasion and racketeering. Before that, it was Rep. Michael Myers (D-PA), who was expelled after he was convicted of bribery. Before that, it was the 1800s, when more than a dozen members were convicted for supporting the confederacy.
But the quantity of evidence against Santos for so many different misdeeds is, to say the least, staggering.
Santos has already admitted to some of his “embellishments,” acknowledging in January that he jazzed up his resume for the sake of electability. But he’s adamantly denied wrongdoing in many of the reports that have come out since, ranging from him stealing puppies from an Amish dog breeder, to numerous questionable campaign finance filings of $199, to his massive campaign loans probably not being legal.
In order for an actual expulsion vote to succeed, all Democrats and 77 Republicans would have to vote for the measure, which was always unlikely. A vote to refer the issue to House Ethics only requires a simple majority—and it saved Republicans from actively to taking a vote to save Santos.
To be sure, there is also an obvious political motivation for Democrats in the expulsion vote: On top of potentially taking out a Republican vote, it was a chance to put Republicans on the record protecting the scandal-plagued member.
As of Wednesday, Democrats’ House Majority Forward had already begun making robocalls in districts held by vulnerable House Republicans, encouraging voters to pressure their members to support the expulsion, according to Axios.
Meanwhile, Santos appears to be outright enjoying the attention. He changed his Twitter profile picture to a shot of him exiting the courthouse last week, surrounded by reporters.
On the House floor Wednesday evening, Santos did, in fact, support delaying a vote on his expulsion too. He told reporters on the Capitol steps as he exited that he believes he has a "constitutional right" to defend himself.
When The Daily Beast asked if he would willingly comply with an Ethics Committee recommendation that he step down, Santos said, “Well, of course, I mean, I'm not chaining myself here. If the ethics committee makes that recommendation that's a different story.”
Santos says he has been cooperative with the Ethics Committee but has not yet appeared before them.
Santos ultimately cut out of the gaggle as two of his New York colleagues—Reps. Jamaal Bowman and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY)—started heckling him.