How Do We Solve a Problem Like George Santos?
On Wednesday afternoon, the Republican Committee of Nassau County, which borders Queens on the western end of Long Island, formally called on embattled freshman Rep. George Santos (R–N.Y.), from the Nassau/Queens 3rd congressional district, to resign in the wake of his serial, jaw-dropping fabulism scandals.
“George Santos’s campaign last year was a campaign of deceit, lies, and fabrication,” Nassau County Republican Committee Chairman Joseph Cairo said at a news conference. “He’s disgraced the House of Representatives, and we do not consider him one of our congresspeople.”
Rep. Anthony D’Esposito (R–N.Y.) from the neighboring 4th district added: “[I] will not associate with him in Congress and I will encourage other representatives in the House of Representatives to join me in rejecting him.”
So that’s one pretty robust way of dealing with a problem like George Santos, whose fabrications include that he was the grandson of Nazi-persecuted Jews, son of a woman who died in 9/11, employer of four victims in the Pulse nightclub shooting, graduate (and star volleyball player!) from Baruch College, and employee at Goldman Sachs and Citibank. Maybe these tribalist political parties are sometimes capable of policing their own?
Not so fast. There’s a big difference between the incentives of small-beer Republican pols in suburban swing districts (remember: Santos was part of the New York mini-wave helping flip control of the House of Representatives to the GOP) and the third-in-line for the U.S. presidency. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R–Calif.), after having benefited from Santos’ support through 15 nail-biting votes in the speaker election, said Wednesday that, far from asking the bewildered-looking 34-year-old to resign, he was preparing to give the rookie some congressional committee assignments.
“In America today, you’re innocent until proven guilty, so just because somebody doesn’t like the press you have, it’s not me that can oversay what the voters say,” McCarthy told reporters on Capitol Hill. “The voters are the power. The voters made a decision, and he has a right to serve here. If there is something that rises to the occasion that he did something wrong, then we’ll deal with that at that time.”
There have indeed been a growing number of attempts to assess and possibly prove the congressman’s guilt ever since The New York Times made Swiss cheese out of Santos’ resume last month: investigations by the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, the New York attorney general, and Nassau County district attorney; a complaint to the Federal Election Commission alleging widespread campaign finance violations; a request for an inquiry by the House Ethics Committee; and even a possible reopened fraud case in Brazil. These efforts, too, can be part of how you solve a problem like George Santos.
But McCarthy’s slippery statement illustrates why we cannot depend on politicians to do the normal right thing. Instead, we should seek to change their incentives.
On one hand, the speaker is absolutely right about the presumption of innocence as a legal principle and also as the traditional threshold for (extremely rare) expulsions from Congress, which are generally limited to joining the Confederacy or being convicted of a crime. But Santos is absolutely guilty—by his own admission in several cases—of telling voters and fellow politicians a series of ridiculous lies (try as he may to downgrade them as “embellishments“). Those transgressions are considerably more grievous than being the target of negative press, and being denied a committee appointment bears little resemblance to being found guilty of a crime.
McCarthy for the moment is taking the calculated risk that his narrow five-seat GOP majority is better protected by not calling for a new special election in a district that went for Joe Biden by 10 percentage points in 2020 and instead just absorbing the collateral stink. This is where the amorphous blob known as we comes in—we voters, we political consumers, we contributors to the culture of public affairs. We can, if we choose, make the stink of not shunning a brazen liar unbearable for even the least principled of politicians to breathe.
But I’ve got some bad news about us.
Two-party political systems on their best days are pendulums—we vote for zig when the other side zags too far, often without getting too hung up on the details. This is indeed what brought us George Santos: Voters in the suburbs of New York City were fed up with crime, inflation, and education policy and sought to punish the locally dominant Democrats. That desire overwhelmed any motivation to learn about let alone act upon the preelection reporting from The North Shore Leader local newspaper that Santos was lying about his real estate holdings and much besides, to the point where the paper editorialized that “he’s most likely just a fabulist—a fake.”
That pendulum-swing inattention becomes actively corrupted ever
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