On March 2, 2023, the House Ethics Committee announced that it had formally opened an investigation into New York Republican Rep. George Santos. The announcement of the inquiry came after months of uncovered scandals and lies. And now, Federal prosecutors have filed new criminal charges against George Santos.
Whether Santos is guilty of the criminal accusations, representatives should be held to a higher standard. To hold elected representatives accountable, the Framers specified two ways legislators might be punished for misconduct. The first is the ability of constituents to vote their member out of office in their next reelection bid. However, the Framers also granted Congress the power to punish its members for misconduct unbecoming of an elected official.
Santos has allegedly lied about his employment at several Wall Street firms and being Jewish. Additionally, questions about whether his management of campaign funds broke the law have also come to light and are the focus of his most recent criminal charges. Furthermore, a former male aide accused Santos of sexual harassment. With all these misconduct allegations, many hope that Congress will punish Santos by expelling him from the House. However, my research suggests that the House is unlikely ever to punish Santos.
Last year, I published an edited volume on Scandal and Corruption in Congress (Pomante 2022a). My research in the book focuses on the likelihood of a member being punished by their chamber when an ethics committee investigates them (Pomante 2022b).
My research examined every case that a chamber’s Ethics Committee formally investigated a member. I identified 140 investigations by both chamber’s ethics committees from the 1st Congress through the 89th Congress and 256 inquiries from the 90th Congress to the 116th Congress (Pomante 2022b). However, I will only look at 222 House Ethics Committee investigations since 1967 for this article. There are five categories for which Ethics Committees have investigated members. The categories members have been investigated for include ethics violations, sexual harassment, bribery & corruption, campaign violations, and other actions. When Congress determines a member has violated rules or decorum, each chamber has three punishment options: reprimand, censure, and expulsion.
I acknowledge that all members are not guilty of their alleged misconduct. However, the House can levy a punishment with less evidence for a criminal trial conviction. Specifically, serving in the House is not a right; it is an elected position to represent the people within that district. Notably, the Framers granted the institution the power to punish individual members for maintaining its integrity and dignity. However, with a current 16 percent approval rating, it appears that Congress needs to do something to return to a higher level of integrity and dignity. The low approval rating could be partially because Congress, in this instance, the House, has been unwilling to hold members accountable for their misconduct. For example, the House has only ousted three members, censured six members, and reprimanded 11 members since 1967.
The only action that the House has consistently punished members for is sexual harassment. However, when the judicial system is investigating a member, Congress tends to wait for the conclusion of the investigation. For example, since 1967, 36 House members have been convicted in criminal court. Yet the House only expelled two members who were found guilty of bribery and censured one member who was found guilty of mail and payroll fraud. Otherwise, Congress refused to punish any of the other convicted members. This sentiment was recently echoed by then-House Speaker Kevin McCarthy when he indicated that Santos would continue to serve and that Santos would have his day in court. With this statement and my review of the history of House Ethics Committee investigations, Santos will likely stay in office until his constituents either vote him out or a court finds him guilty and sentences him for one or more of his numerous charges.
In all, Congress’s likelihood of ever punishing Santos is minuscule. First, Congressional investigations are slow, and any inquiry into Santos and his misconduct will likely be lengthy and continue into the next Congress. However, before the next Congress, an election will take place, allowing New York’s third district to remove him from office if they so choose. Therefore, if Santo’s constituents are dissatisfied with his behavior and work, they may replace him in the 2024 primary or general election by nominating or electing someone else.
Additionally, Santos has pending criminal charges. Again, this means another institution will judge the misconduct and levy judgment, allowing the House to step back and do nothing. If he is found guilty, the courts will punish Santos, and his absence will prevent him from doing his job.
On the other hand, suppose Santos is found not guilty, and his members re-elect him. In that case, the institution will not punish him because the courts and his constituents did not find his misconduct worthy of punishment.
In summary, Congress, specifically the House, has been hesitant to levy punishment against members. Instead, more often than not, the institution prefers to have voters or the courts hold members accountable for misconduct.
(1) Misconduct is a broad term that includes anything from criminal conduct to ethics violations.
(2) I use 1967 or the 90th Congress as the demarcation because it was Congress that made ethics committees permanent as opposed to the ad-hoc fashion before the 90th Congress.
Pomante, Michael J., ed. 2022a Scandal and Corruption in Congress. Emerald Publishing Limited.
Pomante, Michael J. 2022b. “If They Do the “Crime,” Will They Do the “Time?”: Punishment of Misconduct by Congress.” In Scandal and Corruption in Congress, pp. 171-190. Emerald Publishing Limited.
Michael J. Pomante II is an associate researcher at the States United Democracy Center and an Adjunct Professor at Central Michigan University.* Michael obtained his Ph.D. from Northern Illinois University and has published academic research on congressional corruption, political behavior, and state election laws. His co-authored research on the Cost of Voting in the American States will be published in December and was identified as the most widely discussed political science research in 2020.
* The opinions expressed in this article are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent his employers’ views.