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Republicans dismantled a critical tool for investigating George Santos

There's a reason the scandal-plagued freshman called the Republican gutting of an ethics watchdog "fantastic."

Republicans are growing uneasy about carrying on with business as usual with serial fabulist Rep. George Santos of New York in their caucus. Some House Republicans are saying that he shouldn’t be seated on any committees until his tall tales about his personal life and possible campaign finance violations are properly investigated. The Nassau County Republican Committee, whose officials serve much of Santos’ Long Island district, has called on Santos to resign. Another Republican member of New York’s congressional delegation has called for him to quit as well. 

The heat is rising for Santos — who has continued to insist he will “NOT resign!” — but ultimately his fate lies in whether or not the GOP’s leadership and rank-and-file form a consensus on the matter. 

But there’s reason to be pessimistic about that moral awakening. One of the very first things Republicans did as they kicked off their new era of control in the House was to dismantle Congress’ ability to seriously investigate ethics violations. 

The absence of a functional OCE reduces the likelihood of proper scrutiny by one of the few effective internal accountability mechanisms in Congress.

On Monday, Republicans voted almost unanimously for rules that ruin the Office of Congressional Ethics’ capacity to function in the short term. It was a big blow to Congress’ ability to regulate itself. The OCE is a semi-independent ethics watchdog made up of eight representatives who investigate misconduct in Congress but are not in Congress themselves, and are thus somewhat insulated from the partisan politicking in the House’s Ethics Committee. The OCE has a strong reputation for nonpartisanship, and it sorts through allegations and makes recommendations to the Ethics Committee about misconduct. The OCE’s referrals are serious — they’ve led to criminal charges and resignations in both parties in the past. Even if the Ethics Committee declines to take its referrals, those referrals are eventually made public and can still act as an important accountability mechanism.

The Republicans’ rules package on Monday effectively ousted several of the OCE’s board members, who likely won’t be replaced for months. It also all but ensures that it will be understaffed for the next two years. As Insider explains, that means “less ability to investigate allegations of wrongdoing and more time needed to carry out investigations.” 

George Santos called the rules change “fantastic.

The GOP doesn’t need the OCE to make a determination about Santos’ misconduct — the party could simply look at all the publicly available evidence on its own and unite in calling for him to resign, or make use of congressional rules to try to expel him from Congress. But if the Santos saga drags on for longer, the absence of a functional OCE reduces the likelihood of proper scrutiny by one of the few effective internal accountability mechanisms in Congress. It also signals to Santos that his own party doesn’t much care about misconduct and corruption. It would not be unreasonable for him to read the rules change as a sign that ethics are unimportant in Washington, or to feel even more motivated to resist calls for resignation for longer than he would otherwise.

Republicans can improve good governance and enhance their capacity to investigate Santos by reversing their defanging of the OCE. But that’s not what their party really wants. If Republicans really wanted to solve the problem of Santos — and the broader problem of politicians in their ranks who lie relentlessly and remorselessly — then they never would have been so eager to silence an ethics watchdog.