George Santos, the infamous scheming Republican, is officially under investigation by the House Ethics Committee, which will scrutinize the New York congressman’s background, his campaign finances, and the many lies he’s admitted to—threatening him with a range of potential punishments.
A bombshell investigation by the New York Times late last year revealed troubling inconsistencies about Santos’ background. He eventually admitted he lied about all sorts of things, including having a college degree and being Jewish. But Santos refused to resign, only stepping down from his two committee assignments. GOP leadership has kept mum on the issue, likely to protect the party’s razor-thin five-vote majority in the House.* (A January poll found that 78 percent of Santos’ constituents want him out.)
“The leadership should be working to try and get this guy to resign so that the committee doesn’t have to go through all this,” said Charlie Dent, Republican former Pennsylvania representative and chairman of the House Ethics Committee. He told me the best option would be to prevent the investigation from happening altogether, saving Santos and the GOP a whole lot of embarrassment.
But that seems pretty unlikely now, since Santos has repeatedly said he will not resign, and filed paperwork this week indicating he intends to run for reelection in 2024. Sigh. No matter—the House ethics investigation will move forward, and once it’s complete, there are four options for punishment on the table: expulsion, censure, reprimand, or a letter of reproval. Here’s what those mean, in order of severity:
The most severe disciplinary action available to the committee, expulsion, is rare—used only five times in more than two centuries. (The most recent outcast is Ohio’s James Traficant, a Democrat booted in 2002 after a bribery and racketeering scandal.) It’s a power granted to the House in the Constitution, and it’s supposed to be used for any sitting member who engages in “disorderly behavior,” including being disloyal to the country, and requires a two-thirds vote by the full House. Republican leadership’s interest in protecting the slim majority aside, Dent told me he doesn’t think Santos will face expulsion, since historically it’s been reserved for those members found to have violated criminal law. That hasn’t happened to Santos (yet), but the committee is able to refer any evidence it finds to state or federal authorities.
Santos has come under suspicion of campaign finance violations, though, after he initially reported lending $700,000 to his campaign, which he claims is from the salary he earned working for his company, the Devolder Organization, with little information provided about the company itself. Santos has since amended his campaign finance reports, but it has raised more questions than answers.
Santos not accurately declaring his campaign finances could be a violation of federal law, which requires campaigns to disclose any compensation in excess of $5,000 from a single source.
Dent explained that while he served in Congress, from 2005 to 2018, if a member was facing a potential ethics investigation over allegations as serious as Santos is, they simply resigned. “It usually shouldn’t be so hard for a speaker to get somebody to resign if he’s done something terrible, like Santos. But if the member is not capable of feeling shame, well, guess what? It’s going to be hard to get rid of them.”
Expelling Santos also poses a serious risk to the GOP, since it would lead to a special election in a New York swing district that Biden carried in 2020—giving Democrats a strong advantage while risking shrinking Republicans’ already tiny majority. “I know Kevin McCarthy; I know he must find what Santos has done so outrageous and over the top that they need to get rid of him. It’s just a matter of how and when,” Dent said.
The most severe option the committee has after expulsion is to censure Santos, a disciplinary action that has previously been used for members who were found guilty of financial improprieties, insulting other members on the House floor, and even assaults. A censure would require a majority vote in the House, a resolution disapproving the member’s conduct, and a verbal rebuke read aloud on the House floor by the speaker.
Censuring a member of Congress may sound familiar—Arizona Republican Paul Gosar was censured in 2021 after posting an animated video online that depicted him killing New York Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. (Though the pair made headlines during the speaker fight earlier this year for appearing cordial enough to talk on the House floor about the proceedings. Letting bygones be bygones?)
There aren’t specific consequences written into House rules after a member has been formally censured, but the public shaming it brings has driven some members to proactively resign—like disgraced Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner.
Except the current makeup of the Republican Party isn’t so easily scared off—which Dent feels is largely due to the legacy of Donald Trump. “I think part of it is Trump helped bring down standards across the board. … I think many others who now get in trouble kind of emulate Trump’s approach to just yelling and screaming and denying.”
Considered a lower-level punishment than censure, a reprimand requires only a simple majority to pass, and the disgraced member must stand “in his place” in the House chamber while the resolution is adopted. Only 11 House members have been reprimanded, and the reasons have varied, from failure to disclose personal interests in official matters and using one’s office for personal gain to misrepresentations to investigative committees and failing to report campaign contributions, among other bad behavior.
In 2009 South Carolina Republican Rep. Joe Wilson was formally reprimanded by the House for yelling “You lie” at former President Barack Obama while he delivered his joint address to Congress. In 1997 former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich became the only speaker to be reprimanded, and it was for using a tax-exempt organization for political purposes and providing inaccurate information to the House ethics committee.
A letter of reproval is the mildest form of punishment at the ethics committee’s disposal. It needs only a simple majority of the committee to pass, with no action or approval required by the full House. It’s typically used if the ethics committee can’t agree on another mode of punishment.
The letter of reproval is made public when the ethics committee issues its final report on its investigation. Members have been given letters of reproval for things like borrowing campaign funds for personal use and not adequately disclosing it, sexual harassment allegations, and using one’s political office for campaign activity.
Former Pennsylvania Rep. Bud Shuster received a letter of reproval in 2000 for having a cozy relationship with an industry lobbyist, improperly accepting gifts, and encouraging his staffers to blur the lines between their congressional duties and his reelection campaign work. Back in 1989, former California Rep. Jim Bates earned a letter of reproval for sexually harassing his staffers—something Santos has also been accused of.
Last month, Derek Myers, a former prospective staffer to Santos, accused the congressman of making unwanted sexual advances toward him during a private meeting in his office. Myers then filed a police report and a House ethics complaint. Santos has denied the allegations.
Correction, March 16, 2023: This piece originally misstated that Republicans hold a four-vote majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. Republicans currently hold a five-seat majority.