Could George Santos torch the House by vacating the Speaker?

Kevin R Kosar
5 min readNov 20, 2023

The other day, George Santos (R-NY) took to Twitter to decry his enemies and victimization.

While jawing about this weirdness with a former Hill staffer, I wondered, “How will Santos exit the chamber?”

He already has said he is not going to run for reelection.

Yet it seems quite likely that the House of Representatives will again consider voting to expel him. (The most recent effort failed by a vote of 179–213 — with 19 legislators voting “present” on November 1.) The recent Ethics Committee report is damning. Representatives who previously felt that due process and fairness necessitated that they reserve judgment now are free to drop the hammer.

So how will Santos respond to that vote once he knows it is coming? He could go gently into the night. He might give a farewell speech like Ohio Democrat James Traficant did in 2002 after he got the boot.

Or Rep. Santos instead might torch the House. Specifically, what if he demanded recognition the moment the House of Representatives restarted and raised a question of privilege to vacate the speakership?

Wait, you ask, why would he do that?

Answer: Why not? As the above tweet and his other public declarations make clear, he feels betrayed and scorned. Santos has every reason to fight and keep up the act that he is a victim. Additionally, vacating the Speaker would delay the vote on his own expulsion — no Speaker means the GOP would leave the floor to huddle in conference and figure out who is in charge. And if past is prologue, that could take a while. Not to be forgotten is that pulling this maneuver would be sweet revenge on his party for scorning him.

And, obviously, trying to vacate the chair would make for great theater, and Santos is all about drama.

So what would happen if Rep. Santos gave it a whirl?

Now, the motion to vacate (MTV) is privileged, so it cuts the line in front of other legislative business. The Speaker might respond to Santos’ question by refusing to recognize him, but that may well fail. If ignoring a cranky member was a real option the chair could have ignored Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) when he rose to vacate Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

And then the chair would need to rule on the validity of Santos’ question, and he would presumably have to rule in the affirmative. Again, if this question was legitimate for Gaetz to ask then it would be fine for Santos to do the same.

Presumably, all Republicans present if asked would against tossing out Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA).

But what about Democrats? Would they vote with Santos to stick it to Speaker Mike Johnson, vote no to save Johnson, or vote present and let the GOP thwart Santos. Obviously, they would feel some incentive to dump Johnson, seeing as the liberal base has been decrying Johnson as an election-denier and Christian nationalist.

Indeed, having made Johnson a bogeyman, Democrats have little reason to vote against vacating the chair, since their most fervid primary voters and donors would scream. If a GOP conservative stalwart can draw a primary challenger for refusing to oust McCarthy, then a Democratic legislator can earn a primary challenge for helping Johnson survive.

That leaves the option for Democrats to stay away from the chamber or to vote present, which would keep Santos from dumping the Speaker and delaying his expulsion. But would they? Certainly, they did not choose that course of action when their bete noire Rep. Gaetz drew his long knife for McCarthy. Instead, Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) decided it was advantageous to vote to dump the gentleman from California.

The prospect of George Santos temporarily shutting down the House to save his own hide is a troubling one. Thankfully, after further thought and consultation with a maven of House legislative procedure, I found peace. No, Rep. Santos can’t torch the House.

Sure, he can try, but it would fail.

Here’s why.

First, “House Rule IX states that under most circumstances, a Member must give notice of his or her intention to raise a question of the privileges of the House. Within two legislative days of giving such notice, the Member will be recognized to offer the resolution,” as the Congressional Research Service notes. Rep. Santos has made no such notification.

Second, a new privileged motion to expel Santos already has been introduced, and the Speaker may treat it as first in line.

Third, even if Santos had informed the House of his intention before the chair of Ethics Committee gave notice, the Speaker does not have to consider them chronologically.

Fourth, so long as the House GOP can get enough of their members to show up and vote to table the motion or to vote against vacating, Santos’ effort would be thwarted.

Thus, if Santos pulled this stunt he nonetheless would be voted out before action could occur on the MTV.

Which is a relief. The House and the country do not need another Speaker deposed. There is too much important work to do.

But the possibility that this scenario could have arisen should spur the House GOP to change the MTV rule. That any aggrieved GOP member — say someone retiring because he is sick of the dysfunction or a legislator who gets primaried — can bring down the House is a huge and needless vulnerability. The bar should be higher for a motion that disrupts the continuity of government.

Santos has said he would hold a press event after Thanksgiving. He will not be able to vacate the chair to stave off expulsion, but his farewell probably will be anything but demure.

Kevin R. Kosar (@kevinrkosar) is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the co-editor of Congress Overwhelmed: Congressional Capacity and Prospects for Reform (University of Chicago Press, 2020). He hosts the Understanding Congress Podcast.

--

--

Kevin R Kosar

Resident Scholar, American Enterprise Institute, Washington, DC. My books: Congress Overwhelmed (2020) and… See http://kevinrkosar.com