If you blinked twice last Wednesday, you might have missed that the House voted on a resolution to impeach Rep. George Santos (RN.Y.), who chose instead of impeachment to refer the matter to the House Ethics Committee.
To keep the story short: Rep. Robert Garcia (R-Calif.) introduced the expulsion resolution (H. Res. 114) last Feb. 9; announced on May 16 that he intended to call it into the chamber as a question of House privilege; and the next day just did that at 5:01 pm
Rep. Anthony Esposito (RN.Y.), then offered a privileged motion to refer the resolution to the Ethics Committee. He explained that he was one of the first members who called for Santos to resign and favored the resolution; but since it is not close to the two-thirds vote to succeed, believes that the referral to the Ethics Committee is the fastest way to rid the House of “this scourge of the government” who is “a stain on this institution.” With that, Esposito took back the balance of his time and moved on to the previous question.
At 5:34 pm the final tally was announced – a straight party-line vote of 221-204 in favor of the referral, with seven Democrats voting – including all five Ethics Committee Democrats.
For the general public, if it is noticed, such a frivolous process seems to be a gross abuse of the power of the majority of the party to avoid a full debate and account of one serious case of a member being elected under false pretenses. In a December 30, 2022, column in this space, I called it, “the biggest voter scam in House history.” Santos has since been indicted on 13 federal criminal charges including mail fraud, money laundering, theft of public funds, and making false statements to Congress.
Congress is known for shuffling things to committees for study to avoid action on vexing problems. But from my experience working on House rules and ethics standards for more than a quarter of a century, ethics scandals are taken more seriously. Whenever the House has been hit by scandals for decades, its first reaction has been to clean up the mess and then ensure that such outrages do not happen again by enacting corrective laws and rules.
The intention to have a full bipartisan House ethics committee of five Republicans and five Democrats, with the authority to delegate the work to an independent special investigative unit if necessary, is a sign that the institution very sensitive about projecting and delivering a thorough and fair disposition of ethics complaints while ensuring the standard legal protection of the accused.
No member enjoys the ridicule and skepticism imposed on Congress as the First Branch of government, or on the individual members sworn to preserve and protect the government, and that is why the House has put in place a reliable and functional ethical process. But is it necessary when a case seems cut-and-dried on its face?
While I have no doubt that a majority of House Democrats and Republicans would favor ousting Santos today, Republicans are pushing back for a very understandable, though not entirely forgivable, reason: the GOP has such a slim majority margin control of the chamber that the loss of even one member would jeopardize control and the party’s ability to secure a record of achievements in the next election. That strong political reality can explain at least the partisan unanimity of the straight partisan vote to refer the Holy matter to Ethics, if not support its moral justification.
One must also look at it from the standpoint of the originator of the impeachment resolution – a Democratic member from California. I have no doubt that Rep. Garcia feels strongly about the Santos blow to the House and is sincere in his belief that he should be ousted, and the sooner the better. However, he does not realistically expect to have a two-thirds vote in the House for impeachment. That would take 290 of the 435 members, 222 of which are Republicans and 213, Democrats. What is his motive? He just wants to put all the members on the record (ie, on the spot) where they stand on keeping a member like Santos on the government’s salary and voting on important national issues.
It is dishonest or dishonorable to make public where members of the opposition party stand on issues. But when it comes to such a sensitive matter as the honor and decency of the House, it has clear implications of being misunderstood and misapplied, politically. We don’t need to go into a “who shot John?” history of partisan wars in the House that have become worse since the 1990s to find out how it is used to personally destroy members of the opposition party by throwing out cases of ethical misconduct.
We have seen both parties in this and the previous Congress use the power to appoint committee members blocked for partisan and personal purposes. The last thing the House needs now is a re-escalation of the ethics wars that have been used unwillingly to call for votes to expel members of the opposition party. The case of Santos is one that should be dealt with fully and expeditiously under the current ethics process. I have every confidence that it will happen.
Don Wolfensberger is a Congressional Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, former staff director of the House Rules Committee, and author of, “Changing Congressional Cultures: From Fair Play to Power Plays.” The views expressed are his own.
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