The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion George Santos may be unfit for Congress. But he should still be seated.

New York Rep.-elect George Santos speaks during the Republican Jewish Coalition Annual Leadership Meeting in Las Vegas on Nov. 19. (David Becker for The Washington Post)

George Santos has had a terrible week. Multiple reports suggest that the newly elected New York Republican has fabricated virtually everything about himself: his education, his prior work history, his religious heritage and perhaps even his sexuality. Tellingly, neither he nor his campaign has tried to disprove any of the allegations. (Though a lawyer representing him has said Santos was a victim of a “shotgun blast of attacks” and described media exposés about his background as “defamatory allegations.”) Not a good start to a budding political career.

This has led some to argue that the House should exercise its constitutional power over its membership and refuse to seat Santos when it convenes in January. That might seem like a just penalty for the alleged fabulist. But it would be the wrong thing to do.

Democracy means nothing if the people themselves do not rule. That means submitting to their decision even if we are convinced they have decided badly. No one doubts that Santos was legitimately elected in November, and the Supreme Court ruled in Powell v. McCormack that the House can vote to expel members only once they have taken their seats. Expelling Santos on the basis of media reports would amount to the House substituting its own judgment for the people’s. That’s the antithesis of what this country is about.

It would also set a poor precedent that ambitious or unscrupulous politicians would no doubt try to abuse. Imagine a future case that is similar but less egregious. How much of a member’s past must be proven false or questionable to merit his or her exclusion? What about uncovering prior misdeeds? Would they deserve exclusion or expulsion? This is a slippery slope no one should want to go down.

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Congress has implicitly chosen in recent decades to expel a member only when that person has been convicted of a felony. Thus, even members who are charged with crimes are allowed to sit as their cases are tried. Former congressman Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska, for example, remained in Congress while he fought federal charges that he lied to the FBI during an investigation into the sources of his campaign financing. Once convicted, he resigned rather than face expulsion.

This is a clear rule that gives deference to voters while upholding the House’s honor and integrity. It should not be cast aside lightly.

That doesn’t mean Santos will get off scot-free. Some of the allegations raise questions of criminal behavior. Santos largely self-financed his campaign, saying he received the money from a family-run company and from property he owns. But reports suggest the company didn’t have the revenue to pay him the amount claimed, and reporters could not find proof that he owns any of the properties he claimed. If the money Santos used to finance his campaign wasn’t his own, he would have clearly violated campaign finance laws.

Santos will also have to defend his reputation to the voters who elected him. He will have to show up for work in Washington and his district, where he will be hounded by his constituents and the media to give plausible answers to the allegations. Stonewalling simply isn’t politically plausible in the long term. He either has to rebut his critics or expect voters to abandon him in droves.

And he should not expect even MAGA Republicans to stand by him in a primary. (There are a number of Republican state legislators in his district who would leap at the chance to succeed him.) Consider Rep. Vance McAllister (R-La.), who was caught kissing a married female staffer on a surveillance video (he was also married). He ran for reelection anyway and was clobbered, finishing fourth in Louisiana’s all-party jungle primary with only 11 percent of the vote. Consider also the scandal-ridden, ultra-MAGA Rep. Madison Cawthorn (N.C.), who recently lost his bid for reelection in the primary, too, despite former president Donald Trump’s endorsement.

And then there is Douglas Stringfellow, a member of Congress who engaged in similar behavior. The Utah Republican invented a life story from scratch to get elected in 1952, claiming that he engaged in heroic military service in World War II by landing behind German lines in a secret mission and capturing a leading nuclear scientist. His exposure by the Army Times led him to confess his lies on television and abandon his reelection bid.

Santos might have the good sense to resign rather than go through two years of public humiliation. If he doesn’t, however, the voters should decide his fate, not Congress.