You might be tempted to view George Santos, the New York Representative-elect, as a funny and relevant sideshow in American politics. On nearly all important aspects of his life, including his career, education, charitable ventures, campaign donations and his Jewish heritage, he has lied. He is now a member of Congress and has been subject to questions by countless journalists as well as being ostracized by fellow legislators.
All of it has provided some much-needed, humorous end-of the-year humor. But, it’s hard to believe that Santos’s elevation to Congress is indicative of an even deeper problem in American politics. A person should never be able to lie in order to get a seat at the House of Representatives. Not by making vague promises or feigning details, but rather by fabricating their basic biography. Yet, it did happen. This is a worrying sign for our democracy.
Many of the stories Santos claims to have told about his life are questionable. Both Citigroup and Goldman Sachs claimed he worked for him. However, both firms denied that he had ever been an employee. Santos said he was a graduate of Baruch College, New York City. However, he later acknowledged that he hadn’t graduated from any university or college. It is not clear what Santos actually did during the past 15 years of his adult life. The only job that can be confirmed was his time as customer service representative at Dish Network in Queens.
His fabrications are more than just padding your resume. Santos claimed that he was Jewish, and his grandparents survived the Holocaust while he was on the campaign trail. Santos claimed that “I never claimed I was Jewish” and said later that he described himself as Jewish-ish, as though he were an actor in Larry David’s sitcom. At one time, he said that 9/11 had claimed the life of his mother. This seemed to indicate that she was among those 3,000 who were killed in the terrorist attack of 2001. However, he later stated that her death from cancer occurred in 2017. He claims that she was in the south tower, and that she survived. But, at this stage, we don’t know.
Santos is not the only politician who embellishes his qualifications, makes false claims about his heritage, and overstates his education. His lies are still shocking in their depth. Over 10,000 individuals have been in the House for the last two centuries. None of these people seem to have so meticulously fabricated their lives that they were able to be elected. These basic details are not correct even for Donald Trump, who is the greatest liar of American politics.
Santos, in effect, defrauded New York’s third congressional district voters. This was not in strict legal terms, as I will discuss, but rather in a moral, and practical, sense. He cast a vote for someone who doesn’t exist. It is just a matter of time since people wrote in votes for Mickey Mouse. But, Mickey Mouse received the majority of votes. Now, a man wearing a Mickey Mouse hat has set up office on Capitol Hill, getting ready to cast his vote.
New York’s political party system is the most obvious culprit. The question is open to which party bears greater responsibility. New York Republicans, for placing him on the electoral ballot while ignoring that he was actually a charlatan. New York Democrats, for failing to recognize and point out that his biography was mostly fictional. In this situation, I tend to lean more towards the Democrats. It’s not worth it to hold contested elections when a party cannot do basic opposition research on a candidate.
This farce is not over. According to pre-pandemic statistics, over one in ten reporters lives in or around New York. They may not cover all aspects of politics and they might not cover all local congressional elections. They do cover politics, but at least some of them did. And almost none of them asked the question before the election: “Hey George Santos guy?” No one sought out old college friends or former work colleagues to find out more about him. Now he wields one-five-hundred-thirty-fifths of the legislative power of the United States.
Because one newspaper in the area actually sensed that there was something missing, I’m calling it “almost none”. North Shore Leader The paper, which is located in Santos’s Long Island district, raised concerns about Santos’s finances in September. However it received very little attention. You might consider it miraculous that such a newspaper could exist. It Leader Even if it didn’t exist, the organization was able to perform its tragically overlooked sleuthing. Journalists have warned for decades that the loss of the nation’s local media outlets over the past two decades will severely undermine the accountability of state and local officials. George Santos is a perfect example of this fear.
It is possible that the entire system could be responsible for some of the blame. Santos’ scandal is a direct indictment against the House’s model of single-member districts. This supposedly guarantees that the most prominent members of specific communities, at the national level, are elected to represent them. It is supposed to have a filtering effect: Your neighbors and friends should be an effective check to ensure that no morally questionable candidates make it into power.
This safety net was not effective. There were approximately 30,000 people in the original congressional districts, which may have allowed for some local acquaintance with candidates. However, these social dynamics are likely to be lost with 760,000 residents currently living in our districts. Perhaps the lack of personal acquaintance can be compensated by quality local journalism or well-contested elections, although the former is not available in all parts of the country. The latter seems to also be declining. There are only two long-term options: to increase the House, shrink the electorate in each district or adopt another electoral system like proportional representation which would allow each candidate to be subject to greater scrutiny.
There are still more pressing questions. How should Santos be treated? Santos may be already in some level of legal peril. The New York Times reported last week that federal prosecutors in Brooklyn and local prosecutors in Nassau County have opened investigations–largely centered on his financial dealings–into Santos’s conduct. Santos is also facing a reopened fraud case in Brazil by Brazilian prosecutors. This was a case that Santos had lost in 2008. New Yorkers solved the problem by electing Santos to Congress.
However, none of this matters when it comes time to take his place in Congress. It is legal for elected officials not to lie while on campaign trails. Additionally, the Constitution outlines the qualifications of members of Congress. The Supreme Court has held that this means that Congress can not add any additional obstacles beyond those required by Article 1. A legal challenge would defeat any attempt to stop Santos being seated. The House’s impasse regarding the speakership has made it a moot point. (Since Santos claimed briefly on Tuesday night, it was true to form that he took an oath that was not given by any speaker in the House.
The House would have to vote for Santos’ expulsion because of his deceitfulness and lies. However, it could do so in theory. To expel Santos, however, the House would need a two thirds vote. This means that a lot of House Republicans would be required to vote for the removal of a GOP-held district in a majority Biden state. After January 6, my confidence in the caucus’s sense of civic responsibility is lower. Santos should do what is right and leave office. Santos would have been elected if he was not interested in honoring his duty.