Why George Santos Won’t Be Able to Fake His Way Through Congress
In the latest twist in the surreal saga of George Santos, this mystery man congressman has been named to seats on the House committees for small business and for science. As a former chairman of a House committee, I can envision the scene. Seating location is determined by seniority. As a new member, Mr. Santos will be seated on the distant end of the dais, which in a normal situation means zero attention from fellow members and minimal media coverage. But in Mr. Santos’s case, every time he speaks, every time he asks a question, the media spotlight will be on him — putting shame on him and unwanted glare on the committee and the Republicans who put him there. How do committee witnesses take his questions seriously? How do committee members sit still for this guy in their midst?
For a member of Congress to be effective, be it through legislation or committee work or deal-making or favor-trading or helping out a constituent, you have to have relationships. It’s very hard to get anything done alone. Meaningful achievement begins with some measure of cooperation with colleagues based on friendship, ideology, party affiliation, shared interests, previous collaboration or some combinations thereof. And almost always, mutual trust is a bedrock part of those relationships.
Having served in Congress for 28 years, I cannot imagine how Mr. Santos possibly thinks he can be effective as a member of the House, if he thinks about it at all. In modern politics, I can’t recall another freshman lawmaker who took office so completely lacking the trust and respect of his colleagues. Except perhaps for a few ineffective congressional outliers, I can’t imagine a member of either party working or cooperating with Mr. Santos. And when you don’t have that, you’re just faking your way through the workday — something Mr. Santos is apparently pretty good at.
What’s it like to be shamed and shunned as a member of Congress, to be a walking outcast among your peers? We have so few examples — Mr. Santos takes us into new territory. New members of Congress get to know one another by sharing stories about where they come from and where they went to school and exploring areas of common interest; Mr. Santos apparently made almost all of this up. New members meet with senior members who can show them the ropes, help them get some early legislative wins; what senior members will want to work with this guy?
Typical House members have 100 things coming at them at any one time — calls to make and return, constituent services to prioritize and deliver, good news and bad news to deliver to your district, decisions decisions decisions. Your ability to do all of this often depends on getting people on the phone or into a meeting to get the answers or results you need. Who will pick up the phone when George Santos is calling or take him seriously when they do?
Not everyone elected to Congress is a candidate for sainthood or paragon of virtue, of course, but usually when a member is being investigated or under a cloud of suspicion, there is a history of experience to work from. When Representative Charles Rangel of New York was under investigation for months by the Ethics Committee in 2010, he continued to work effectively with many of us all that time. He had acquired a reputation during his previous 40 years in Congress of keeping his word, and he had an experienced staff who worked with colleagues’ staffs to serve the district well. Representative Rangel may have faced a harsh media spotlight and was not his usual outgoing self, but he didn’t go into hiding and he wasn’t shunned. Even many people who voted ultimately to censure him considered his offenses malum prohibitum not malum in se. (I was one of only two Republicans to vote against his censure.)
Other members, engulfed in far more serious scandals, resigned relatively swiftly: Representative Mark Foley of Florida was gone in less than 48 hours after reports of his sending sexually suggestive messages to teenage boys who had served as congressional pages. Representative Anthony Weiner of New York resigned three weeks after his sexting scandal broke in 2011. Both men seemed to see the writing on the wall: Against the backdrop of investigations into possible criminal wrongdoing and the sordid nature of the allegations against them, they knew they could no longer be effective. I do not know Mr. Santos, but it is hard to see him as anything other than delusional if he thinks he can function or that there is a result of his continued service beyond deepening his own shame.
When you have no colleagues or friends on Capitol Hill who trust you, you get walled-in pretty quickly, and it’s the voters who suffer. During the weeks when he was under siege and then after his resignation, Representative Weiner did have able staff in his Washington and district offices who were able to keep serving his constituents during and after the scandal broke. That is hard to envision with Mr. Santos, given that his staff is relatively inexperienced on Capitol Hill and most people will have a hard time believing his office will live up to its word when the congressman is a fraud. Already some local and county officials from the Third Congressional District have said that because of lack of trust they will not work with Mr. Santos or his office. This is a prescription for disaster.
There is also a potential political disaster looming for House Republicans, who run a real risk of losing their House majority because of this albatross called Santos. Republicans may not have won the House without New York unexpectedly picking up four seats in 2022. Those four and at least four other seats, however, could well be in serious jeopardy in 2024 if congressional Republicans continue to stand by Mr. Santos.
The newly elected Republicans members from New York have called for Mr. Santos to resign. Republican congressional leaders must make it clear they also want him gone and quickly call for a full and complete investigation by the Ethics Committee, which has the authority to recommend expulsion. Failure to do what’s morally and politically right could cause voters across New York to punish Republican officeholders in a presidential election year because the G.O.P did not find a way to dump Mr. Santos.
The truth is that Mr. Santos is hurting the House that many of us love and dragging down the Republican caucus to a shameful place. He does not belong there, but there is no indication that he will consider resignation. The more bizarre the revelations, the more he digs in. Expulsion would require a two-thirds vote by the House following an Ethics Committee hearing and findings or a criminal indictment and conviction. In any case that would be months away. As long as Mr. Santos remains in Congress, he is dead man walking and will be unable to get anything done for his constituents. For at least this one moment in his life, it is time for Mr. Santos to face reality, do the honorable thing and resign the seat in Congress.
Peter King was a Republican congressman representing parts of Long Island from 1993 to 2021. He served as chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee from 2005 to 2007 and 2011 to 2013.
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