From suit and tie to ‘Anything Goes’: The Senate dress code has unraveled before

From suit and tie to ‘Anything Goes’: The Senate dress code has unraveled before

Who cares what they’re wearing
On Main Street or Saville Row?
It’s what you wear from ear to ear.
And not from head to toe that matters.

— You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile from the musical ‘Annie’

Apparently you can wear anything you now want in the U.S. Senate.

Smile or no smile – but with a caveat.

If you are a legislative aide, a parliamentarian, a clerk, or work for the sergeant-at-arms, you must still suit up to enter the Senate chamber.

But senators may dress however they’d like.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., quietly instructed the Senate sergeant-at-arms office to quit enforcing a Senate dress code rule — which isn’t really a rule.

Remember, this is the Senate. The Senate has 44 standing rules. But often those rules pale compared to various Senate precedents, customs and folkways.

It’s not written down anywhere, but the Senate purportedly has a custom which requires men to wear a coat and tie in the chamber. The tradition is less specific when it comes to women. But appropriate business attire is de rigueur for them.

And no one has said this specifically, but Schumer’s instruction to dress down the dress code can be linked to Sen. John Fetterman, D-Penn. The freshman Democrat favors hoodies and baggy basketball shorts rather than a Jack Victor suit. Fetterman sometimes appears in the rear of the chamber, voting from a doorway in his casual getup rather than making his way all the way into the well of the Senate chamber. Fetterman is routinely spotted around the Senate in gym attire.

Fetterman is allowed to wear his hoodie around the Capitol.

And believe it or not, this is not the first time a lawmaker in a hoodie made headlines.

Go back to March 2012 with former Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill.

Rush — the only politician to defeat President Obama (in a primary for a House seat) — came to the House floor to protest the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida. Martin’s death drew national attention. George Zimmerman shot and killed Martin, but was later acquitted. Zimmerman said he spotted Martin wearing a ‘dark hoodie, like a gray hoodie.’ It was argued that the hoodie made Martin look suspicious.

Rush wanted to highlight how he believed Zimmerman racially profiled Martin because of his attire. Rush came to the House floor wearing a lavender shirt and a charcoal, pinstripe suit. He donned a lilac tie. But underneath, Rush wore a hoodie.

‘Racial profiling has to stop,’ said Rush on the floor, removing his suit jacket to reveal the hoodie, sliding sunglasses over his eyes.

‘Just because someone wears a hoodie does not make them a hoodlum,’ said Rush.

Former Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., presided over the session. Harper banged the gavel 29 times until a House chamber security aide escorted the Illinois Democrat off the floor.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) asked why Rush, who is Black, was removed from the chamber but other lawmakers who showed up to vote in other attire weren’t.

‘Whenever the rules are not enforced, you create the opportunity for somebody to believe they have been singled out,’ said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., at the time.

Yet no one said a word when then-House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., who is White, spoke in the House chamber in the spirng of 2018 wearing a Washington Capitals jacket. Such a garment does not technically comport with the House’s dress ‘code.’ A 1981 precedent noted that lawmakers could not wear overcoats — such as a jacket — on the House floor. Hoyer outfitted himself in the Capitals jacket to salute the team for winning the Stanley Cup.

One member of the CBC recalled the Rush incident a few years prior and wondered to yours truly if the House treated Hoyer differently because he was White or because he was the Minority Whip.

The bottom line is that sartorial decisions have always been an issue on Capitol Hill. 

Former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, periodically reminded members from the dais about his expectations that they wear proper attire on the floor. Yet the House ‘rule’ on proper attire was based on a similar utterance from the chair by late House Speaker Tip O’Neill, D-Mass., in the 1970s. The House rulebook is rife with precedent about the Congressional wardrobe. The presiding officer did not recognize a Member to speak because they weren’t wearing a jacket in 2012. Another presiding officer chastised a Member for not wearing a jacket in 2001. 

There was a call to arms for female reporters when former House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., ran the show. Chamber security personnel prohibited female reporters from entering the Speaker’s Lobby because their arms weren’t covered. Ryan then eased the policy, granting women a right to bare arms.

The House has banned hats in the chamber since 1837. That’s a concrete House rule: Rule XVII, Clause 5. Hence, the invention of the Democratic and Republican cloakrooms off the House floor for members to hang their hats and ‘cloaks.’ Then again, no one really wears a ‘cloak’ any more except Dracula. It’s unclear if the House has a place for Drac to store his teeth.

Late Rep. Bella Abzug, D-N.Y., always wore a hat in the 1970s to distinguish herself from staff. There weren’t many female lawmakers at the time. Most women who worked on Capitol Hill then served as secretaries. Abzug could wear the hat anyplace but on the House floor.

Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., always wears a signature cowboy hat around Capitol Hill and in committee hearings. But Wilson is barred from wearing a hat on the House floor.

Late Rep. Pat Schroeder, D-Colo., said her outfit in 1973 enraged fellow lawmakers — mostly men.

‘The day I wore a pantsuit onto the floor, you’d have thought I asked for a land base in China,’ said Schroeder.

As for the changes in the Senate dress code, some lawmakers don’t give a stitch.

‘I haven’t thought one moment about it,’ said Sen. John Hickenlooper, D-Colo.

When specifically asked by a reporter about ‘Fetterman’s dress code,’ Hickenlooper offered this rejoinder. 

‘I’ve spent less time thinking about that,’ replied the Colorado Democrat about his colleagues vestments.

However, Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., isn’t as buttoned up.

‘Speaking of new lows,’ said Cramer, pivoting to the fashion conversation after discussing a potential government shutdown. ‘The idea of turning the United States Senate into a sports bar is very unappealing to me.’ 

That said, maybe converting the Senate into a sports bar could be an improvement.

Imagine the Senate opening at dawn on Saturdays for people to watch the Premier League. Or, people could cluster into the Ohio Clock Corridor to watch Deion Sanders coach Colorado later that same afternoon.

But Cramer has some serious grievances about the changes.

‘It used to be that people looked at Members of Congress and at least looked up to them a little bit,’ said Cramer. ‘Now all they have to do is look down.’

As we wrote, the dress ‘code’ now only applies to those who work in the Senate chamber who aren’t senators. Believe it or not, imposing a dress code for lawmakers to enter the chamber to vote could be unconstitutional.

Article I, Section 5 of the Constitution allows the House and Senate to make their own rules for operations. But Article I, Section 6 of the Constitution includes something called the ‘Speech or Debate Clause.’ That provision bars anyone from inhibiting lawmakers from performing their Congressional duties. Period. 

No matter what they’re wearing.

Perhaps the Broadway production of ‘Annie’ and never being ‘fully dressed without a smile’ isn’t the best musical to refer to in these circumstances. 

Maybe dial up some Cole Porter, instead. 

In the Senate these days, ‘Anything Goes.’

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