Some voters will read Friday's vote by U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tennessee, not to expel disgraced U.S. Rep. George Santos, R-New York, as more evidence of what they believe are his ties to the hard right wing of the Republican Party.
His vote, after all, matched that of U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the outspoken, often ridiculed, far-right congresswoman from just across the border in Northwest Georgia. And the Ooltewah Republican recently reiterated his strong support for indicted former President Donald Trump to again be the party's presidential nominee in 2024.
But we believe Fleischmann is simply being consistent with history, not voting to support the odious Santos, who a House Ethics Committee found had routinely used campaign funds for personal expenses.
Before Friday, of the five previous House members who had been expelled, three were actively supporting the Confederacy as the Civil War got underway. And two had been convicted of crimes in federal court. Santos has not been convicted of a crime but is charged with 23 felonies for his role in a range of schemes involving personal and campaign finances (and has plead not guilty). He also had said he wouldn't seek re-election in November 2024.
"While Rep. Fleischmann is greatly concerned and personally revolted with the allegations against Mr. Santos in the Ethics Committee's report," a statement from his office said, "he does not want to break the precedent established since the inception of the House in 1789 that a Representative should be expelled for either treason against the United States or after being convicted of a crime in a court of law. Congressman Fleischmann believes Mr. Santos deserves his day in court and the due process of law."
The 3rd District congressman was one of six of Tennessee's eight Republican House members to vote against the expulsion, which required a two-thirds vote. U.S. Reps. Tim Burchett of Knoxville, Scott DesJarlais of Sherwood, Diana Harshbarger of Kingsport, David Kustoff of Memphis and Andy Ogles of Columbia voted with Fleischmann, while U.S. Reps. John Rose of Cookeville and Mark Green of Ashland City voted for the ouster.
Slightly more than half of House Republicans (112) voted for Santos to stay, while 105 voted for him to go. All but two of the body's 208 Democrats — including U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen of Memphis — were only too glad to vote Santos out of office, though most were against a vote of censure last month against Palestinian American U.S. Rep. Rashida Talib, D-Michigan, who has repeatedly made antisemitic and anti-American remarks during her tenure in Congress.
Some newer Republicans may believe by expelling Santos they will have more leverage to move against Democrats they believe are wronging the country. But if they do, they are sadly mistaken. We're not sure the current crop of congressional Democrats would move against a fellow party member even if they have been convicted of a crime.
Take U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-New Jersey, for example. Indicted nearly a decade ago on charges he accepted illegal campaign contributions and expensive trips, his trial ended in a hung jury. Now he again, along with his wife, is under indictment that he accepted bribes worth hundreds of thousands of dollar in exchange for using his official position to benefit the government of Egypt and some New Jersey businessmen.
Not even half of Senate Democrats have suggested he resign, and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, has not pushed the issue.
Until Santos, all five expelled House members were Democrats. U.S. Reps. John B. Clark and John W. Reid of Missouri and U.S. Rep. Henry C. Burnett of Kentucky all went to fight for the Confederacy and were ousted in 1861. Later, U.S. Rep. Michael J. Myers of Pennsylvania was voted out in 1980 after being convicted of bribery as part of the ABSCAM scandal, an FBI sting operation in which an undercover agent convinced him to introduce specific legislation in exchange for thousands of dollars, and U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant of Ohio was booted in 2002 after conviction on 10 felony charges, including racketeering, accepting bribes and filing false tax returns.
Fleischmann may be sticking by Trump — he recently talked of a visit to the former president's Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida — but his voting record indicates he is among the most moderate of Tennessee Republicans. And his opinion on Santos matched that of one of Georgia's most liberal Congress members, U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, D-Columbus, who said the New York legislator "is not worthy of serving in the House of Representatives" but "the people of New York's third congressional district should decide who represents them. I'll always decide on giving power to the voters."
We'll lose no sleep over Santos' exit, nor will the country. But we think the precedent Fleischmann supported of conviction-first, ouster-second would have been the proper way to go.