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Why it matters that the GOP gave Santos its seal of approval

It would’ve been easy for the House speaker and GOP leaders to decide that George Santos is simply too radioactive for committee assignments. They did not.

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Rep. George Santos’ breathtaking dishonesty has made him a laughingstock, but as regular readers know, we’re well past the point at which his list of lies is the congressman’s only problem. The New York Republican is, after all, facing local, state, federal and international investigations.

As Santos’ troubles intensified, and a growing number of GOP members called for his resignation, the next question was whether Republicans would reward the fabulist with committee assignments. As NBC News reported, that question was answered yesterday afternoon:

House Republicans awarded embattled Rep. George Santos, R-N.Y., seats on two House committees Tuesday.... The GOP Steering Committee, which is led by Speaker Kevin McCarthy of California and doles out committee assignments, voted to give Santos slots on the Science, Space and Technology Committee and the Small Business Committee, which are two of the lower-profile panels on Capitol Hill.

Santos reportedly sought a slot on the Financial Services panel, which has greater influence and prestige, but McCarthy insisted that the New Yorker would not sit on any of the more prominent committees.

Still, what matters most in a situation like this is that the scandal-plagued congressman is getting any committee assignments at all. It would’ve been easy for the new House speaker and GOP leaders to decide that Santos is simply too radioactive for such an imprimatur. They did not.

And why, pray tell, did Republicans make this decision? CNN’s Manu Raju reported that there was “concern” among GOP lawmakers that if they denied Santos committee assignments, “it’d set a precedent for other members who are facing intense scrutiny from the press but have not been charged with a crime.”

At face value, that might make sense, though it’s not an especially compelling point. The party is effectively saying it had to support one scandal-plagued Republican in order to shield future scandal-plagued Republicans.

But just below the surface, there’s a related problem. The problem’s name is Steve King.

As we discussed last week, the Iowa Republican, in a message directed at McCarthy, wrote via Twitter, “I see you found the spine to DEFEND the will of the voters in defense of [Santos] from charges of lying. I seem to recall the time you DEFIED the will of the voters and led the lynch mob against me for telling the truth.”

It remains an interesting observation. Exactly four years ago this week, following a series of racist incidents, GOP leaders agreed to strip then-Rep. King of his committee assignments. McCarthy, the House minority leader at the time, said his conference simply could not “tolerate” King’s racism any longer, and the Iowan was no longer a Republican member in good standing.

The decision made sense; King had just days earlier asked, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” But in the process, McCarthy and other GOP leaders helped establish a precedent: Members don’t have to be convicted of any crimes to be exiled from the party mainstream.

McCarthy didn’t simply say about King, “The voters of his district have elected him.” Rather, McCarthy said King, by way of his rhetoric, had gone too far and the party would no longer tolerate him. In the eyes of the future House speaker, the right-wing Iowan had forfeited his role, and he did not deserve to be a Republican member in good standing.

The question then becomes why McCarthy, four years later, is so inclined to give Santos a break. I continue to think this is largely the result of legislative arithmetic: The House Republican majority is tiny, and the new speaker can’t afford to see it shrink.

In other words, McCarthy acted on principle two years ago because his party was already in the minority, and he saw King as expendable. McCarthy is ignoring principle now because the circumstances have changed.