Why was it so hard to expel George Santos from Congress? Because the system is working as designed, legal expert says

George Santos leaving Congress with photographers taking pictures of him.
Rep. George Santos (R-NY) was expelled from Congress on Dec. 1 by a vote of 311-114. Santos is the sixth person in the history of the United States to be expelled from the House. Photo by Tierney Cross/Sipa via AP Images

George Santos, the New York Republican congressman whose web of lies and ethical lapses became the center of a political storm, was expelled from Congress in a bipartisan vote on Friday.

The deciding blow to Santos’ time in Congress came after a 56-page Ethics Committee report published in November found that he fabricated significant parts of his life during his election campaign, including connections to the Holocaust and Sept. 11. 

Although he still faces a 23-count federal indictment, Santos is now one of only six members of Congress to be expelled in the history of the United States. And he’s the only member to be expelled without being convicted of a federal crime or supporting the Confederacy.

The measure to expel Santos passed the required two-thirds majority, with 311 members of the House voting in favor and 114 against. Two House members voted “present.” In a rare display of bipartisan agreement, the lawmakers who voted in favor of the measure included 105 Republicans. Two House Democrats, Bobby Scott of Virginia and Nikema Williams of Georgia, voted against it.

Headshot of Jeremy Paul.
Northeastern University Professor of Law Jeremy Paul. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Jeremy Paul, a professor who specializes in constitutional law at Northeastern University, says one of the reasons a congressional expulsion is so rare is that the system is working as designed. Getting two-thirds of the House to vote together “means you have to do something so egregious that not only do the people from the other party want you out.”

“That’s a good thing,” Paul says. “We definitely don’t want partisan expulsions.”

But Paul says, historically, the real reason expulsions haven’t happened more often is simple: Most politicians caught committing “something so egregious” resign before they get expelled.

“You’ve had congressmen for a long time that have been caught engaged in corruption scandals or bribery, and usually when that happens, they just quit,” Paul says. “But in our currently polarized world in which politicians seem to be able to survive all sorts of public scandals because the voters are more interested in having someone from their team stay in charge than about the character of the person, it’s become easier for them to hold on. That’s what Santos did.”

Santos remained defiant until the vote Friday, denying all of the accusations and evidence laid out in the Ethics Committee’s report. Beyond fabrication, the report accused Santos of a vast array of misconduct that included using campaign funds on personal expenses like Botox treatment, falsifying campaign loans and lying to donors about how campaign funds would be used.

Santos joins a select few congressmen who have been expelled throughout U.S. history. Three members –– Henry Burnett, John Reid and John Clark –– were expelled in 1861 for fighting with the Confederacy during the Civil War. Michael Myers was expelled in 1980 after being convicted of bribery, and James Traficant was expelled in 2002 after he was convicted of 10 felonies, including racketeering, bribery and fraud.

Paul says the next step now that Santos has been expelled will likely be a special election to find a replacement representative in New York’s 3rd Congressional District. Waiting until next November’s election, the winner of which wouldn’t step into the role until January 2025, would leave “the voters in that district … unrepresented for more than a year,” Paul says. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul has 10 days to announce a special election, which must take place 70 to 80 days after that announcement.

Democrats are already working hard to flip Santos’ seat and Republicans have been vetting potential candidates for months, according to the New York Times. But Paul says it’s important to acknowledge the bipartisan support that led to this moment at a time when the House has become intensely polarized. 

“Every time within today’s polarized country that we see people voting in a way that doesn’t necessarily suit their partisan interests is a good thing,” Paul says. “Here, it’s a little mixed because some of the Republicans who wanted to expel him thought that getting rid of him would help their political interests.”

And with Republicans holding on to an already narrow margin with Santos, the congressman’s expulsion could also make it more difficult for Republicans to pass legislation in a bitterly divided House.

“From the point of view of Speaker [Mike] Johnson, he has such a narrow margin in the House that even losing one vote is significant,” Paul says.

Cody Mello-Klein is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at c.mello-klein@northeastern.edu. Follow him on X/Twitter @Proelectioneer.