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A Small Step Toward Seriousness
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A Small Step Toward Seriousness

George Santos gave Congress more than enough reasons to expel him.

Rep. George Santos is surrounded by journalists as he leaves the U.S. Capitol after his fellow members of Congress voted to expel him from the House of Representatives on December 1, 2023 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

George Santos, the infamous fabulist, got the boot from Congress last week. The first member to be expelled in more than 20 years and one of only three members 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, including 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 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, a university, a newspaper, law firm etc.—the question of whether 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 “coequal” is an invention of the Nixon era). Congress writes the law, 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.

Removing the unserious Santos is a small first step to remedying one of the great sources of dysfunction in American politics: Congress’ refusal to take itself seriously.  

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 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.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.