Understanding the George Santos shuffle

Rep. George Santos
Rep. George Santos Photo by Lokman Vural Elibol/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Rarely, if ever, has there been a lawmaker like New York freshman Republican Rep. George Santos. A prolific liar whose initial mea culpa of "embellishing my résumébelied a lifetime of alleged grift and manipulations, Santos has quickly become one of the most recognizable — and reviled — members of Congress. Defying widespread calls from both his constituents and fellow elected officials for his resignation, Santos has instead committed himself to run for a second term while throwing his weight behind pieces of conspicuously self-referential legislation.

But cheeky congressional antics and empty MAGA rhetoric have not, it turns out, shielded Santos from more concrete consequences for his actions beyond mere low public opinion polling; he has stepped down from his committee assignments under pressure; in March the House Ethics panel opened an inquiry into his behavior, with a mid-May a vote to expel him from Congress entirely later folded into the ethics committee' existing work; and most serious of all, Santos has been arrested and arraigned by the Justice Department on 13 counts of fraud, money laundering, and other alleged financial crimes. In the early months of his first term in elected office, Santos now finds himself in a complicated dance between congressional Democrats, Republicans, and federal prosecutors — with his future and the potential balance of the House of Representatives at stake.

Ethical considerations

In early March, Santos confirmed that the House Ethics Committee had opened an inquiry into his behavior, and said that he was "fully cooperating" with the investigation but provided little detail on the content of the probe itself.

In a statement, the committee said it was looking in particular at whether Santos "engaged in unlawful activity with respect to his 2022 congressional campaign; failed to properly disclose required information on statements filed with the House; violated federal conflict of interest laws in connection with his role in a firm providing fiduciary services; and/or engaged in sexual misconduct towards an individual seeking employment in his congressional office."

While ethics investigations have historically led largely to fines and other relatively modest means of discipline, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) had explicitly staked Santos' future in Congress on the results of the inquiry, promising that if the committee members conclude that he'd broken the law "then we will remove him." McCarthy doubled down on placing the onus of Santos' future in the committee's hands in May, shunting a resolution from Rep. Robert Garcia (D-Calif.) for the full House to expel the congressman entirely to the ethics panel who would then "bring it back to Congress if it rises to the ability." Days later, panel chair Rep. David Joyce (R-Ohio) bucked longstanding House tradition by committing to continue his group's pursuit of Santos' ethical breaches "bifurcated from those that are criminal," even while the Justice Department investigates Santos for financial crimes — something which previous ethics committees have typically allowed to supersede their own probes.

Criminal liability

On May 10, Santos surrendered himself to federal authorities, who officially charged the congressman with 13 separate counts of money laundering, wire fraud, lying to the U.S. House, and theft of public funds as part of an effort to "ascend to the halls of Congress and enrich himself." In particular, the government alleged that Santos engineered a scheme to raise ostensible campaign funds which were, in actuality, intended for his personal use on items such as "luxury designer clothing" and to pay off his existing debts, all of which he allegedly lied about on his financial disclosure forms. He also is accused of applying for and receiving federal COVID-19 unemployment payments, in spite of actually earning more than $100,000 per year at the time. All told, Santos risks a maximum sentence of decades in prison. And while the full extent of the government's evidence against him has yet to be revealed publicly, the speed with which the Justice Department moved against him suggests "how easy of an investigation it's been, up until this point," former Federal prosecutor Shanlon Wu told CNN.

While McCarthy did not call for Santos' expulsion from Congress — there's no law against holding congressional office as an indicted, or even convicted felon — he did use the arrest to announce that he would not support a second term for the lawmaker who "got some other things to focus on in this life than running for stuff."

3D congressional chess

Despite calls from both sides of the aisle for him to step down — or be forcibly removed — from his seat, Santos remains in office thanks in no small part to the Republicans' precarious control of the House and the glut of significant legislation to move. "Given where we're at with the debt limit and a four-vote majority" Republican leaders are wary of pushing too hard for Santos to be ousted, George Washington University Legislative Affairs professor Casey Burgat told the Christian Science Monitor. In this context, McCarthy's decision to put Santos' congressional fate in the hands of the ethics committee rather than a full House vote "gave Republicans, including those from New York who have been vocal about how much Santos needs to exit, a temporary out as the party clings to its barely there majority," Talking Point Memo's Nicole Lafond wrote. Democratic House Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) alleged as much during a press conference, accusing Republicans of trying to "bury accountability for a serial fraudster" by sending the expulsion vote to an ethics committee that's already "had the George Santos matter for months."

Ultimately, Jeffries alleged, "extreme MAGA Republicans actually need George Santos's vote" because he's "critical to their ability to govern."

McCarthy's maneuver may also have been designed to prevent his caucus from being put in an impossible political position by House Democrats. To expel Santos, 77 Republican lawmakers would need to join with the entire Democratic caucus to reach the requisite 2/3 majority for expulsion. This affords Democrats an opportunity either remove an opposition lawmaker, or to highlight "a toxic vote for the GOP if Republicans stand with Santos and do not expel him," said Fox News' Chad Pergram. Some senior House Democrats, however, privately agreed with McCarthy's public statements arguing that shifting the vote to the ethics panel would prevent snap expulsions from becoming a congressional precedent.

As for the ethics committee's decision not to comply with a Justice Department request to stand down in favor of its own criminal proceedings, both Republican and Democratic members of the panel seem to agree that breaking longstanding tradition to step aside for DOJ investigations is appropriate in this case. While the specifics of that sentiment remain private to committee members themselves, they have "had discussions" according to ranking Democrat Susan Wild (D-Penn.) and are "going to be arguing that we should not be yielding to DOJ on any matter we have jurisdiction over."

For his part, if Santos is concerned over the pending ethics investigation or his place in Congress, he doesn't appear to show it, instead telling Fox's Pergram that he values "the process" for "accountability and transparency."

"It's not about dodging bullets," he said.

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