Let me ask: have you ever fibbed a little bit on your resume? Maybe you haven’t actually brushed up on your Excel skills in a while and you’re not sure you could actually do any real analysis, but it’s going under “skills”? A couple semesters of French a decade ago means you’re conversational, right?
Everyone’s probably massaged the facts a little bit in a resume or job interview, but what most people haven’t done is make up an entire life story and use the fabrication to get over 140,000 voters to cast ballots for them and win a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. George Santos isn’t most people.
By this point, you’ve probably heard about the Republican representative-elect (the new Congress hasn’t actually taken their oaths of office yet; more on that later), who was chosen by voters in New York’s 3rd congressional district on Long Island, beating out Democratic opponent Robert Zimmerman by a comfortable margin of roughly 54 to 46% of the vote, largely on an inspiring story about overcoming the odds and forging his own path in elite academia and finances.
You may not be aware of the sheer extent to which the man forged his whole identity out of not obfuscations or exaggerations but brazen and baseless lies. At this point, they’re so numerous and have been unearthed by so many sources that The Daily Beasthas a compilation, with highlights including that he’s Jewish and descended from Ukrainian Holocaust refugees; that he attended Horace Mann and Baruch; that he worked at Goldman Sachs and Citigroup; and even that his mom died on 9/11.
Some of the only real and verifiable details that have emerged about his life are less than flattering, including the fact that he’s wanted for fraud in Brazil. Beyond the brazenness and obvious questions about his capacity for honesty, there are significant concerns over his campaign and personal finances specifically, with the then-candidate seeming to have been paid lavishly by unknown clients and his campaign receiving substantial donations that were then spent in dubious ways. For example, hundreds of expenditures fall exactly one cent under the threshold at which receipts must be legally provided, and some significant funds appear to have been used for expenses like the house he was personally occupying.
The trouble is, none of this would directly prevent Santos from taking office, and he seems intent to, having shown up at the Capitol on Tuesday for his supposed swearing in, which ended up not happening due to the protracted fight over the House speakership. Both local and federal prosecutors have announced that they are probing his financial irregularities, and it’s possible that he will face an internal House ethics investigation, but the only real way that he could be forced to leave Congress is if the voters kick him to the curb in two years’ time, or if a two-thirds majority of the House votes to expel him from the body. Getting two thirds of Congress to agree on absolutely anything would be a monumental task, which leaves the former option as the likeliest for getting the snake oil salesman out of the halls of the Capitol.
All of this raises the obvious question: how could this happen? How did a person who so boldly and plainly lied about pretty much everything manage to fly relatively under the radar until it was too late? To some extent, it has to do with the depletion of institutions, particularly local media. Once upon a time, there would have been dozens of reporters poring over the histories of every candidate in a competitive New York election, looking for exactly this type of malfeasance. That’s no longer possible in an era where newsrooms like the storied New York tabloids are at fractions of their former headcount, dogged and combative outlets like the Village Voice are all but dead, and the very large local papers like the Times increasingly turn their resources outwards, to lucrative national and international markets.
That’s not to say no one dropped the ball here, and certainly someone could have pulled the Santos thread a little earlier, but that’s much harder when reporters have portfolios three or four times larger than what they would have had just 20 years ago. This is precisely why supporting local media is more than just a nicety; allowing reporters the runway to actually pull threads outside the churn of constant output, with the content ax always hanging overhead, is actually a rather crucial element of an effective democracy. Without this corps of reporters to dig and amplify improprieties, you end up just getting more and more politicians in the vein of Santos, to the detriment of all.
As for a quick recap on the House situation: it’s a disaster. Republicans have now taken their majority in the body, but they can’t actually form a Congress until a speaker is chosen. This is typically a cursory process; everyone knows in advance who the governing party has coalesced around and the vote is basically ceremonial. That is not what is happening here, as the majority of Republicans throw their support behind the largely consensus candidate of California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, while a fringe of 20 far right candidates have kept up a consistent opposition over several days of votes, tanking his chances.
There was speculation that the clash could be smoothed over with McCarthy simply providing some more concessions to the bloc, led by Reps. Lauren Boebert and Matt Gaetz, but things seem to have hit a stalemate and are actually looking worse off now as each side just gets angrier. In the meantime, there’s functionally no House of Representatives. Unlike other legislative bodies, the House has the quirk of requiring that the representatives-elect choose a speaker before the new Congress can be sworn in and the body be put in session. As long as this continues, the body can’t formally convene.