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The Senate’s turn to act

With George Santos expelled from the House, why hasn’t the Senate removed Bob Menendez?

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., arrives at Manhattan federal court on Oct. 23. Associated Press/Photo by Frank Franklin II

The Senate’s turn to act
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Last Friday, the U.S. House of Representatives delivered the two-thirds majority necessary to expel one of its members. George Santos, Republican from New York’s 3rd Congressional District. Santos had a high profile early on as one of a handful of New York Republicans who flipped seats in the 2022 midterm elections. His brief term in office was beset with controversy almost from the beginning as questions immediately emerged about his resume, which looks to have largely been manufactured. In fairly short order, a case of resumé inflation expanded into a more serious investigation into mismanagement and personal appropriation of campaign funds.

Based on reporting, Santos appears to have pretended to loan his campaign money and then used contributions to pay himself back for the nonexistent loan. As a result, he was able to use campaign money “repayment” for Botox, gambling, travel, entertainment, rent, and fashion. Thus, the House ethics committee alleges that the congressman defrauded individuals and/or organizations who thought they were financing his campaign by diverting their funds for personal use and lying about it in official documents.

The case sounds like an easy call, but some Republicans, including House Speaker Mike Johnson, voted with the minority against expulsion. They were concerned that the action would set a bad precedent. How so? Isn’t the corruption and abuse of office obvious? The answer is that in the past only five members of Congress were ever expelled from their seat. Of that five, three joined the Confederate rebellion against the United States. Two others were convicted of crimes such as bribery. One of those two was actually swept up in an FBI sting operation.

As attention-getting as George Santos’ actions have been, the fact remains that he has been charged but not yet convicted. Removing an elected official on the basis of charges without full process of law could potentially open up a new level of political warfare, especially in narrowly divided bodies such as the current Congress where charges and accusations could potentially shift the balance of power.

Adding fuel to the fire of concern over the potentially premature nature of the expulsion is that there is a member of the other major American political party, the Democrats, who remains in office despite similarly laboring beneath a cloud of suspicion. There is substantial evidence that Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey has acted improperly by working to advance the interests of Egypt for his own gain.

There is something unseemly about a rush by one body to expel the man who appears to be guilty of the lesser crime while the parallel authority drags its feet.

Perhaps anticipating an outcry at the fact that the Republican Santos of the House has been expelled while the Democrat Menendez of the Senate continues to hold office, the Los Angeles Times advanced the argument that Menendez’s different fate is justified because he has not had the due process of an ethics committee investigation while Santos has. By that logic, of course, the Republicans of the House could have simply retained Santos and his vote by delaying committee action.

On one hand, the two cases look quite similar. You have a member of the lower body and one of the upper chamber who have both been accused of unethical conduct. One of them has been expelled, while the other continues to enjoy the power and perquisites of office. One of them is from the party typically preferred by the national media and happens to be the one managing to brazen out the scandal so far. The different fates of the two is notable, but we might just admit that politics are politics and the advantages are the advantages.

There is something else significant that really needs to be said, though. It is certainly the stuff of headlines to hear that Rep. Santos used campaign money on Botox and Las Vegas. However, it is little remarked that the charges against Sen. Menendez are more serious not only in degree, but in kind. While Santos used campaign contributions improperly, the complaint against Menendez is that he derived personal benefit while arguably working for the interests of another country and giving it sensitive information. The gravity of that charge vastly outweighs Santos’ shifty games.

It is true that while the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate are separate institutions and have their own way of operating, it is also the case that they together constitute the legislative branch of the nation. There is something unseemly about a rush by one body to expel the man who appears to be guilty of the lesser crime while the parallel authority drags its feet. By all means, justice should be done. The codes of ethics that apply to lawmakers must be vigorously enforced. But let justice be equally applied so as to build the confidence of the people in our commitment to it regardless of the advantages.

Hunter Baker

Hunter Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the dean of the faculty and provost of North Greenville University.

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