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The unusually drawn-out voting for House speaker has overshadowed the tale of Rep.-elect George Santos, R-N.Y., during the first days of the 118th Congress.
According to news reports, Santos seems to have fabricated most of his biography, including his college degree (he has none), his employment (he was never employed by Citigroup or Goldman Sachs), and even his ethnicity (he does not appear to have Jewish ancestry nor be a descendant of Holocaust survivors).
His assertion that the 9/11 attacks "claimed" his mother’s life appears to be wrong. It’s unclear how he amassed the hundreds of thousands of dollars he gave his 2022 congressional campaign, just a few years after he was working in a low-level call center job for Dish Network and facing eviction from his rented apartment.
Within days of these revelations, prosecutors on Long Island, where Santos’ district is based, began an investigation. The Justice Department is also investigating Santos. Prosecutors in Brazil are seeking to revive a check fraud charge that is more than a decade old.
Santos has offered a mixture of explanations and apologies.
"I’m not a fraud," Santos said in an interview with WABC radio host John Catsimatidis. "I’m not a criminal who defrauded the entire country and made up this fictional character and ran for Congress. I’ve been around a long time. I mean, a lot of people know me. They know who I am. They’ve done business dealings with me."
Santos apologized for what he called "résumé embellishment."
"I’m not going to make excuses for this, but a lot of people overstate in their résumés, or twist a little bit. … I’m not saying I’m not guilty of that. … I didn’t graduate from any institution of higher learning. I’m embarrassed and sorry for having embellished my resume," he said, adding that "we do stupid things in life."
Can Congress stop Santos from taking office given the reports about his misleading background?
Until the House elects a speaker, there are technically no sitting House members. By long-standing practice, a speaker must be chosen before newly elected members are sworn into office. And the previous Congress’ term ended Jan. 3.
Santos is poised to be sworn in to office once the speakership vote is resolved. He has not said he plans to resign.
Santos can’t be blocked from being sworn in because a 1969 Supreme Court case, Powell v. McCormack, limited the grounds on which representatives-elect can be denied seating. Under this ruling, representatives-elect can be denied seating only if they fail to meet one of the constitutional requirements for serving in Congress: age, citizenship and residency. (In this scenario, it would require a simple-majority vote to block seating.) None of these three factors appears to be problematic in Santos’ case.
So beyond resignation, the main options would be to expel Santos, or to let him serve.
Expulsion is conceivable, but would require a two-thirds vote of the House. Some of Santos’ fellow Republicans would have to agree to expel him. Given the GOP’s narrow majority — and the possibility that his seat could flip back to the Democrats in a special election — the party is unlikely to pursue that tactic.
Only five House members have been expelled in history, according to the Congressional Research Service. The most recent expulsion came in 2002, when Rep. James Traficant, a renegade Democrat from Ohio, was convicted of 10 corruption-related charges.
A criminal conviction could increase the pressure on Santos to resign, but the call would be his to make. Also, a conviction could take months or more than a year to be rendered — if charges are ever filed.
Absent an expulsion or resignation, Santos would continue in his seat until the voters weigh in again in 2024.
Santos could remain in the House, but face an ethics investigation. The House Ethics Committee, which is evenly divided between the parties, could launch an investigation and levy a punishment, but it could not carry out expulsion on its own. It could recommend expulsion, but the full House would have to provide two-thirds support in a vote. It could also provide lesser punishments, such as censure, reprimand or a fine.
The committee’s purview has historically extended to actions during the member’s congressional tenure. It’s unclear which misrepresentations would qualify, though misuse of campaign funds could, wrote Donald Wolfensberger, a congressional expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former House Rules Committee staff director.
"The authority of the Ethics Committee to apply House rules and its own guidelines to members for behavior conducted before election to the House is unclear," said Steven Smith, a political scientist at Washington University in St. Louis. "The House or the Ethics Committee probably must clarify the committee’s jurisdiction before proceeding on complaints."
House leaders could withhold privileges. Beyond an Ethics Committee sanction, Republicans could deny Santos committee seats or other perks of office.
"My guess is he will be isolated in his own conference," Wolfensberger told PolitiFact. "I suppose he can still do his one-minute speeches and special-order speeches on the floor, but I doubt he would be recognized to speak during any legislative debates which are managed by committee chairmen and ranking minority members, or their designees."
Ultimately, Wolfensberger said, "I suspect most House Republicans wish he would just go away, one way or another, and, like the Maytag repairman, become ‘the loneliest man in town.’"
Donald Wolfensberger, "The ‘Talented Mr. Santos’ faces possible sanctions for hood-winking voters with false claims," Dec. 30, 2022
Congressional Research Service, "Expulsion of Members of Congress: Legal Authority and Historical Practice," Jan. 11, 2018
U.S. Supreme Court, Powell v. McCormack (1969)
New York Times, "What Can the House Do to Address George Santos’s Falsehoods?" Dec. 29, 2022
USA Today, "What can Congress do about Rep.-elect George Santos, who lied ahead of winning his election?," Jan. 3, 2023
New York Times, "Who Is Rep.-Elect George Santos? His Résumé May Be Largely Fiction," Dec. 19, 2022
Associated Press, "Newly elected Republican congressman admits to lying about graduating from college, working on Wall Street, being Jewish, and more," Dec. 27, 2022
Washington Post, "George Santos said 9/11 ‘claimed my mother’s life.’ She died in 2016," Dec. 29, 2022
NPR, "N.Y. Rep.-elect George Santos is being investigated for lying about his past," Dec. 29, 2022
NBC News, "Federal prosecutors open investigation into Rep.-elect George Santos over congressional campaign," Dec. 29, 2022
Email interview with Donald Wolfensberger, Congress Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former staff director of the House Rules Committee, Jan. 4, 2023
Email interview with Steven Smith, political scientist at Washington University in St. Louis, Jan. 4, 2023