George Santos, the infamous fabulist, got the boot from Congress last week. The first member to be expelled in over 20 years and one of only three to be kicked out for something other than fighting for the Confederacy, Santos was the only representative since the Civil War to be removed without first being convicted of a crime (bribery to be specific).
There’s not enough space here to recount all of the allegations against Santos, which include 23 federal charges, among them fraud and identity theft. What seems clear is that Santos was a bit like Max Bialystock, the main character from “The Producers,” who thought he could bilk investors, or in Santos’ case donors, on the assumption that no one would inquire about what he did with their money if the Santos show bombed. But Santos won his Long Island congressional race, inviting scrutiny that should have been applied when he announced his run.
Still, some of those standing athwart Santos’ defenestration yelling “Stop!” — or at least “Think this through” — make good points. Dan McLaughlin in the National Review and Byron York in the Washington Examiner both argue that expelling House members without a criminal conviction will have unintended consequences. And it’s not just conservatives. Adam Serwer, a liberal writer for the Atlantic, agrees that “Congress deciding for itself whether voters have made a mistake could lead to more members being expelled for things that they are only alleged to have done.”
It’s important to note that no serious person — at least that I can find — defends Santos on the merits. As York stipulates, “Santos had no business being in the House, and it was an embarrassment that he was elected in the first place.”
While their points are well-taken, I nonetheless dissent.
In almost any other institution — a business, university, newspaper, law firm, etc. — the question of whether or not to fire someone doesn’t normally hinge on a criminal conviction. Say you’re a boss of an employee accused of myriad misdeeds, from making up his résumé to criminal fraud. You wouldn’t fire the employee based on mere rumors. You’d conduct some kind of investigation. If that investigation provided evidence to your satisfaction, you’d fire that employee. You wouldn’t wait, possibly for years, for a criminal conviction.
Of course, Congress is different. Members don’t work for the House, they work for their constituents. “One advantage of holding off on expulsions is that a conviction provides a clear, neutral limiting principle,” the editors of the Wall Street Journal rightly note. “What’s the rule now?” they ask.
How about enough facts to satisfy two-thirds of the House? Which is what it took to oust Santos.
Expelling Santos was an act of political repair, not destruction. Yes, it violated a longstanding and defensible norm, but the decision was forced by the breakdown of other norms. For starters, Santos is a shameless fraud who, by word and deed, had no loyalty to norms of conduct. He also took advantage of the breakdown of basic notions of journalistic and partisan due diligence. If the natural biofilters of the political ecosystem aren’t working, Congress can and should change its standards when toxic sludge sluices into the chamber.
Congress, after all, is the supreme branch of government (The idea that the three branches are “co-equal” is an invention of the Nixon era). Congress writes the laws, creates most courts and all executive agencies, and sets their salaries. Congress can fire members of the other two branches, while those branches cannot touch Congress. And it can fire its own members too.
One of the great sources of dysfunction in American politics is the refusal of Congress to take itself seriously. Removing the unserious Santos is a small first step.
One of my biggest peeves about the impeachment debates of the last quarter-century centered on the same argument used to oppose Santos’ expulsion: that the only just standard for impeaching a president can be found in criminal law.
The idea that a president must be proved guilty of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt to be removed from office is a nonsensical standard. It’s also cowardly, because it allows members of Congress to abdicate all responsibility to apply their judgment. The presumption-of-innocence standard is right and proper for criminal cases because the convicted can be denied of life and liberty. But impeachment, like expulsion, merely deprives a politician of a privilege — to hold power. I’ll worry about the unintended consequences when someone undeserving loses that privilege.