“Why would I want to stay here? To hell with this place!”
That was former Representative George Santos’ (R-N.Y.) response to his expulsion from the House of Representatives, which occurred on December 1. His exit from the U.S. Capitol was quick, chaotic, and strangely comical. Swarmed by reporters, Santos bolted for his car, and his final words to the eager press only added to the bizarreness of the situation.
“As unofficially, already no longer a member of Congress, I no longer have to answer a single question from you guys.”
Santos’ removal, the latest of a string of unprecedented decisions enacted by the House, cemented him as just the third Congressman to be expelled since the Civil War. The call for his removal was overwhelming across party lines, with 105 Republicans and 206 Democrats voting in favor of his expulsion. Santos himself did not even stick around for the final vote tally, as he began to make his dramatic exit from the Capitol moments before the decision was even announced.
Santos' time in office—an eleven-month whirlwind—was plagued by scandals and federal charges. However, his infamous departure may be a sign that U.S. politicians perceived as corrupt will now be held accountable for their misdeeds.
Back in November 2022, Santos’ victory in northern Long Island and northeast Queens was his second attempt at Congress and an upset in a district that had previously favored Democrats. Yet even before he arrived at Capitol Hill, Santos faced serious doubts regarding his integrity. During his campaign, Santos claimed that he graduated from Baruch College in 2010, after which he became a “seasoned Wall Street financier and investor.” However, a report by the New York Times discovered Citigroup and Goldman Sachs (where Santos had claimed to once work) had no records of Santos’ employment. Baruch College also revealed that it had no record that Santos had attended, and shortly thereafter Santos admitted that he had embellished aspects of his resumé.
However, the lies did not stop there; Santos’ even lied about his ethnicity. While campaigning, perhaps in an attempt to appeal to New York City’s large Jewish population, he shared a great detail about his “Jewish background,” and claimed that his maternal grandparents had fled from Ukraine to Brazil during WWII to escape persecution. However, genealogy tests first cited by The Forward showed that his maternal grandparents were born in Brazil, not Ukraine. When he was questioned about the lie, he argued that he had been misheard.
“I said I was Jew-ish,” Santos responded.
Yet despite the controversy and warning signs of his dishonest nature, he was still sworn into office by Kevin McCarthy on January 7.
Then, not even two weeks later, scandal surrounded Santos once again. On January 17, Richard Osthoff, a Navy veteran, accused Santos of scamming him out of $3,000 worth of donations that Santos raised to fund life-saving surgery for Osthoff’s dog. This was just the beginning of the turbulence in Santos’ political career: lie after lie of his was exposed, including the claim that his mother had survived the 9/11 attacks while in the South Tower (she was not as immigration records proved that she wasn’t even in the U.S. at the time).
Then, on May 10, the Department of Justice hit Santos with 13 federal charges, including theft of public funds, wire fraud, and money laundering. Additional federal charges were brought in October, alleging that Santos had made unauthorized charges on the donors’ credit cards. On November 1, Santos faced his first vote of expulsion, but the House failed to reach the two-thirds majority needed to remove him from office, with 182 Republicans and 31 Democrats voting in favor of allowing him to retain his seat.
However, Representatives’ minds changed when on November 16, the House Ethics Committee published a report finding that Santos stole money from his campaign for personal expenses. Just an hour after the report’s publication, Santos announced that he would not run for re-election, but would not resign. Even after the House decided to vote on expelling Santos on December 1, he remained defiant that he should be presumed innocent, exclaiming “But if I leave, they win. This is bullying.”
“They” won, and he was expelled—although in retrospect, it was always a matter of when rather than if. From the moment he took office back in January, it quickly became evident that Santos was not the person whom New Yorkers had voted for. His resumé and inspiring backstory were revealed to be a pure fabrication. Santos lied about all aspects of his character—his childhood, education, heritage, employment, and accomplishments. In the end, Santos’ lies even outweighed the Republicans’ need to maintain their razor-thin majority in the House: simply put, the entire situation was too embarrassing to continue. While in office, Santos remained a liability for Republicans, for his antics reflected negatively on the GOP as a whole.
For now, Santos will be remembered as a conman who bizarrely evaded scrutiny long enough to get elected but was unable to untangle himself from his web of lies.
However, the work to end corruption in Congress should not end with a fond farewell to Santos’ antics. Other lawmakers under serious ethical clouds remain in office, a prime example being Lawrenceville’s home Senator, Robert Menendez (D-NJ). In 2017, Menendez was charged with a wide range of offenses, including intervening in visa applications and interfering with government contracts, in exchange for personal favors such as luxury vacations. Menendez vehemently denied the allegations in the trial which ended with a hung jury and viewed his subsequent reelection the following year as a personal vindication. 2023 brought a different variation of the same theme, with both Menendez and his wife now charged with accepting significant bribes including cash, gold bars, and even a Mercedes-Benz in exchange for taking action to assist Egypt.
Menendez is once again proclaiming that he will fight the charges and be acquitted. However, Santos’ expulsion will undoubtedly increase the attention on why Menendez should be entitled to retain his seat while the criminal case against him proceeds. This attention will focus upon the specific allegations against Menendez, which are his abuse of his legislative powers for the benefit of a foreign country, a more serious public policy issue than Santos’ Botox sprees.
Menendez is now the most prominent remaining example of the perceived corruption that continues to contaminate Capitol Hill, which not only inhibits progress but, if proven, cheats the American people out of the fair representation that they deserve. Simply put, each member of Congress should be beyond reproach regardless of their actions, and ethical standards should reflect the level of responsibility attached to leading the people. In this regard, Santos’ case is a step in the right direction towards restoring confidence in Congress’ integrity, and may even spark a broader chain reaction of holding lawmakers accountable. Without consequences for abuse of power, how can the United States trust that its leaders are acting justly? Congress must not lose the momentum gained from ousting Santos, by ensuring that members of Congress are working for their constituents rather than themselves.