Editorial: Santos’ removal may set worrisome precedent

The Wall Street Journal

George Santos, assuming that’s his real name, is a classic type, and in another era he’d be selling miracle elixirs out of a horse-drawn wagon or perhaps founding a religion based on his divine revelations. Instead he went to Congress. On Dec. 1 the House expelled the indicted New Yorker, but however bad Santos’s conduct, it’s a worrying precedent for a polarized age.

Santos faces 23 federal charges, including fraud and identity theft. Yet he has pleaded not guilty, and even politicians get a presumption of innocence. Before Santos’ expulsion, which passed 311-114, only five people in history had been booted by the House. Three were removed in 1861 for serving the Confederacy. The other two, in 1980 and 2002, were convicted of serious crimes.

The drawback of waiting for due process and a criminal conviction is that scoundrels can linger in office. Those with a sense of shame often spare themselves and the country by resigning, which Santos refused to do. But he said he wouldn’t run for re-election, his trial is scheduled for next September, and two months after that voters could pick his replacement.

One advantage of holding off on expulsions is that a conviction provides a clear, neutral limiting principle. What’s the rule now? Shortly after Santos’s ouster, Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman renewed his call to eject Sen. Bob Menendez, who recently pleaded not guilty to federal crimes. “If you are going to expel Santos,” he said, “how can you allow somebody like Menendez to remain?” Santos’s lies were almost funny, he added: “Menendez, I think, is really a Senator for Egypt.”

After the vote to eject Santos, drawing lines will be more difficult. It’s no good to argue that Santos is a fabulist who fibbed his way into office. How is that a distinction? When a politician is engaged in wrongdoing, he tends not to advertise it. Instead he tells voters that he goes to church on Sundays, he’s committed to honest dealing, and he named his three daughters Faith, Prudence and Rectitude.

Santos is clearly disreputable, and his constituents in New York have a right to be angry about his behavior. But in breaking the seal of expulsion without conviction, Friday’s majority has lowered the bar in a way that partisans will be tempted to abuse. As much as the House didn’t want to put up with Santos for another minute, lawmakers may come to regret that they didn’t leave his fate to the courts and the voters.