The choice to expel Santos is what a government of laws demands.
By Jacob Reese
Last Friday, the House of Representatives expelled one of its own for the sixth time in its history. Friday, December 1st, 2023, a day that will likely not live in infamy: the day George Santos, the polarizing Republican freshman from New York, was stripped of his office.
His expulsion is complicated business, but business that cuts to the bedrock of the American experiment. To expel or not to expel, that is the question—ethics, justice, and constitutional order hang in the balance.
From his election in 2022 to his inglorious fall, Santos has been a curious story. Santos became the only sitting LGBT congressman for the Grand Old Party, flipping New York’s 3rd Congressional district red. Yet, as he was sworn into Congress in January 2023, Santos faced multiple ongoing lawsuits and allegations of blatantly lying about his resume.
The coming months featured an Ethics Committee inquiry, a DOJ investigation, and two unsuccessful attempts at expulsion. But there’s more. In October, a federal grand jury indicted Santos with 23 counts of criminal activity, including identity theft and wire fraud.
This brings us to mid-November and the House Committee on Ethics’ damning report on Santos. Compiling more than 170,000 pages of evidence, the committee alleged that Santos committed “grave and pervasive campaign finance violations and fraudulent activity.” Still more appalling is the fact that Santos refused to cooperate with the Ethics Committee’s investigation. Indeed, Santos declined to give a statement under oath in his defense or submit a written statement explaining his side of the story, and he repeatedly delayed the investigation’s fact-finding efforts.
The report galvanized Republicans and Democrats alike. A resolution to expel Santos passed by a margin of 311 to 114.
Santos’ behavior is unbecoming of public office; however, he has not yet been found guilty in a court of law. Given the lack of conviction, we face a dilemma: Was justice done by expelling George Santos?
Congress’s power of expulsion, the process of removing a member after they have been seated, is addressed in Article 1, Section 5 of the Constitution: “Each House may … punish its Members for disorderly Behaviour, and, with the Concurrence of two thirds, expel a Member.”
There is little judicial commentary on Congressional expulsions. Yet both chambers have broad authority to define how and when expulsions may occur, and the separation of powers suggests that Congress is not constrained by the courts before delivering a verdict. Simply put, the founding fathers empowered Congress to expel as it sees fit.
With such a broad mandate, why hasn’t Congress been kicking out disreputable members left and right for decades? The answer: precedent. Before Santos, the House of Representatives expelled a total of five members. Three of the ignoble crew got the boot during the Civil War for siding with the Confederacy. The other two more recent expulsions followed felony convictions.
But that’s just part of the story. On several occasions, the House considered expulsion but did not act on it. Each of these cases is unique, and the facts range from sad to plainly absurd: spitting on a colleague, attacking a peer with a cane, accepting bribes, selling military appointments, and killing a fellow Congressman in a duel are a few of the charges for which the House considered expulsion. By and large, these Congressmen resigned before being expelled. If engaged in litigation, they were granted their day in court before the House decided if it would send them packing.
This murky mess of precedent can be summarized in one word: discretion. In each case, the House exercised discretion in carefully considering the facts, passionately debating the options, and voting according to conscience.
Where does this leave us? Santos’ behavior is almost certainly criminal and unquestionably violates ethical rules. Yet, despite broad Congressional authority to expel, precedent cautions careful consideration.
Admittedly, those who oppose expulsion have a legitimate argument. Never before has the House expelled a Representative without conviction or membership in the Confederacy.
But that doesn’t supersede the House’s prerogative to exercise clear Constitutional authority and discipline its members accordingly. Neither law nor precedent requires judicial conviction or traitorous conduct in order to consider expulsion. Indeed, law and precedent mandate that Congress act with discretion to uphold order and institutional integrity.
Santos was afforded a fair investigation and provided numerous opportunities to defend himself. Ultimately, he was charged with serious criminal misconduct and procedural violations—actions that flagrantly demeaned the reputation of the House of Representatives and, by extension, the American people. Congress reviewed the allegations, determined Santos’ behavior was disorderly, and delivered their verdict—the right verdict—by a two-thirds majority.
Santos’ expulsion is complicated, but it’s what our government of laws—rooted in ethics and subservient to justice—demands.
About the Author
Jacob Reese is a sophomore political science major and Trustee Scholar. On campus, Jacob serves as an Associate Editor of the Grove City College Journal of Law and Public Policy and is a member of the American Enterprise Institute Executive Council, the GCC Federalist Society, RoundTable Honorary, and the “Wolverine” Marching Band. His interests range from politics and foreign affairs to church-state relations and political philosophy. This summer, Jacob interned with Cornerstone Law Firm, a general practice law firm based in Berks County, PA. He aspires to pursue a career in the legal or public policy arena.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed are those of the writer alone and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grove City College, the Institute for Faith and Freedom, or their affiliates.