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The problem(s) with Kevin McCarthy’s standards on George Santos

As Rep. George Santos' scandal worsens, why does Kevin McCarthy's Republican leadership team have weaker standards now than a decade ago?


House Speaker Kevin McCarthy held a Capitol Hill press conference late yesterday, announcing his decision to kick two Democrats off the House Intelligence Committee. When reporters were given a chance to ask the Republican questions, several wanted to know why the speaker was punishing Reps. Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell, while rewarding GOP Rep. George Santos.

McCarthy didn’t seem especially pleased with the line of inquiry, though as NBC News reported, he tried to explain himself.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said Tuesday that while he stands by Rep. George Santos, the freshman congressman would be removed from office if the Ethics Committee finds he broke the law after he admitted fabricating parts of his background.

“You know why I’m standing by him? Because his constituents voted for him,” McCarthy said. The speaker added that he intends hold Santos “to the same standard I hold anyone else elected to Congress.”

The Republican then tried to punt the matter to the House Ethics Committee, adding, “If for some way, when we go through Ethics, that he has broken the law, then we will remove him, but it’s not my role. I believe in the rule of law. A person’s innocent until proven guilty.”

McCarthy concluded that party leaders are prepared to take additional steps if the Santos fiasco “rises to a legal level.”

At first blush, this might seem reasonable. The New York congressman has been exposed as a prolific liar who’s currently facing local, state, federal and international investigations, but he hasn’t yet been indicted. To hear the speaker tell it, that’s roughly where the line currently rests: If Santos is found to have broken the law, GOP leaders will act. If not, the scandal-plagued liar will remain a Republican lawmaker in good standing.

What’s wrong with this? As it turns out, quite a bit.

First, it’s generally not up to the House Ethics Committee to make formal determinations about whether members have violated criminal statutes. Much of the panel’s work focuses on congressional rules, not criminal law.

Second, Schiff and Swalwell also deserve the presumption of innocence — McCarthy’s accusations against them have not fared well under scrutiny — but the speaker punished them anyway.

But perhaps most important is the evolution in the Republican Party’s standards. As we discussed last week, after the GOP reclaimed the House majority in the 2010 midterm elections, party leaders announced a “zero-tolerance policy” for members caught up in embarrassing controversies that reflected poorly on the institution. McCarthy, it’s worth noting for context, was a member of the House Republican leadership at the time.

Those standards were put to the test quickly: Just one month into the new Congress, then-Rep. Chris Lee of New York was caught trying to meet women through the personals section of Craigslist. GOP leaders urged him to resign, and he did.

Note, they didn’t say his constituents voted for him. They didn’t wait on a House Ethics Committee investigation. They didn’t consider whether the controversy rose to “a legal level.” Lee was deemed an embarrassment, and his party showed him the door.

A few years later, then-Republican Rep. Vance McAllister of Louisiana was filmed kissing a staffer who was not his wife. It didn’t seem to occur to GOP leaders — who, again, included McCarthy — to say, “You know why we’re standing by him? Because his constituents voted for him.” They also didn’t defer to the Ethics Committee or declare, “A person’s innocent until proven guilty.”

The congressman got caught in an ugly mess — not a criminal matter, but a personal scandal — and that was enough for Republicans to call for his resignation at the time.

All of which leaves us with a simple question for McCarthy: Why does the GOP leadership have weaker standards now than a decade ago?