September 21, 2023

Senate Dress Code

“Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Monday that staff for the chamber’s Sergeant-at-Arms — the Senate’s official clothes police — will no longer enforce a dress code on the Senate floor. The change comes after Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman has been unapologetically wearing shorts as he goes about his duties, voting from doorways so he doesn’t get in trouble for his more casual attire… Schumer did not mention Fetterman in his statement about the dress code, which will only apply to senators, not staff.” AP News

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From the Left

The left argues that the entire issue is a distraction from urgent legislative business.

“Style is ever-changing, politics are ever-evolving and attire getting more casual is an age-old complaint. When we think about a choice like the change to a dress code it’s important to see it in its larger context. Over the years, other dress code changes have occurred in the Senate without disaster. In 1993 female senators were—at last—permitted to wear pants on the Senate floor. In 2019 the Senate finally stopped enforcing a rule that prohibited female senators from baring their shoulders…

“Politicians are in the image business and are very well aware that clothing sends a message. If a member of the Senate wants to wear a suit, great. If they choose a dashiki, that’s great too. A dress? I’m all for it. Largely speaking, if what the senators are wearing is our top concern then we are certainly not focusing on the most important parts of their jobs. As voters, we have put our trust in these people to have a large say in both the present and the future of our country. What exactly are we saying if we don’t trust them to pick out the clothes they want to wear to work?”

Elena Sheppard, CNN

"The problem with the Senate is not how it looks, but what it does. Joe Manchin is largely responsible for doubling child poverty last year — who cares what he wears? His vote is what matters. Manchin’s behavior gets at the heart of things. The Senate is a profane and occasionally grotesque institution, concerned more with an esoteric sense of decorum than with human welfare…

“The same Republicans who are just so shocked at Fetterman’s outfits are largely in thrall to Donald Trump, who certainly has no respect for the Senate as a deliberative body or for democracy in general. The real spectacle isn’t Fetterman in his shorts, but the Senate itself.”

Sarah Jones, New York Magazine

"House Republicans are fighting among themselves and unable to pass a spending bill that would be an opening bid to deal with Democrats before government funding lapses at the end of the month. Senators still haven’t figured out how to get Sen. Tommy Tuberville, the Alabama Republican, to end his blockade of all top-level Pentagon nominations. [Fetterman] noted the disconnect between the importance of matters of state and matters of style when he issued a press release offering to wear a suit if Republicans could agree to pass a spending bill.”

Zachary B. Wolf, CNN

Some argue, “At the risk of idealizing the place, the Capitol is, or should be, thought of as the temple of the world’s oldest continuous democracy. Within that, the Senate floor is its most sacred space. It was the setting for America’s most consequential debates on war and peace, freedom and slavery. Throughout history, those who participated in its proceedings dressed accordingly. Admittedly, the appropriate level of dignity is subjective; you know it when you see it. And when a senator comes to the floor in pickup softball gear, you don’t…

“[It is] all too imaginable that attention-seeking lawmakers will don T-shirts emblazoned with the names and mascots of their hometown sports franchises — or inflammatory partisan messages — hoping to go viral on social media and garner small-dollar donations.”

Editorial Board, Washington Post

From the Right

The right defends the dress code, arguing that it affects performance and also indicates respect for the institution.

The right defends the dress code, arguing that it affects performance and also indicates respect for the institution.

“It’s not that John Fetterman is going to be a better or worse senator depending on how he dresses — he’ll be a party-line vote regardless. But his dress speaks to how he regards his position. This would be obvious in other contexts. If someone shows up at a funeral or a wedding in jeans and a T-shirt, it is taken, understandably, as a sign of disrespect, as an unwillingness to make the basic effort to acknowledge the solemnity of the occasion

“A session of the Senate isn’t as fraught and meaningful as a wedding or a funeral, but it should be considered an event of some consequence. The history of the body stretches back to the beginning of the republic, and it is invested with considerable power. Dressing appropriately acknowledges this; dressing as if it’s a bowling alley disregards it. Would we take a judge as seriously without his or her robes? Or an officer of the law without his or her uniform?”

Rich Lowry, National Review

What we wear truly does matter… A number of studies show that dress affects behavior and performance. One, published in 2015 by ‘Social Psychological and Personality Science,’ involved subjects who changed into either formal or casual wear before performing cognitive tests. The people in formal business attire consistently did better with abstract thinking. [Another study] confirmed these results, finding that wearing formal clothes helps foster abstract thinking…

“Of course, styles and rules change and evolve, as do perceptions of what constitutes proper formal attire… But institutions whose performance matters greatly, such as the Senate, or a courtroom, ought to require the very best of whatever current standards dictate. If senators begin to look as if they just came in from mowing the lawn or taking a nap, it’s doubtful they will be prepared to give their best to the American people. That is not how great world powers thrive.”

Editorial Board, Deseret News

“I accept that John Fetterman sincerely prefers wearing shorts and a hoodie to wearing a suit and tie. But so what? So do many millions of Americans whose jobs require them to dress for work more formally than they do during their leisure time. You, the reader, might be reading this at work right now… Like any grown adult, when you’re on the clock and around colleagues, you prioritize looking professional over maximum comfort. It’s a way of showing respect to your institution, your employer, and your clients and of earning their respect in return…

“[Fetterman] may dress like a populist, but his desire to be exempt from a longstanding norm that applies to the hoi polloi is emphatically not. Hidden in the fine print of Schumer’s new policy, in fact, is the detail that the old dress code remains in effect for Senate staff. Only senators themselves have been liberated from it…

“The people who draft the bills, write the briefing memos, make the necessary phone calls, and do all manner of other grunt work that keeps Congress running are still required to dress professionally rather than for comfort… It’s strange that John Fetterman, man of the people, is content with that double standard.”

Nick Catoggio, The Dispatch

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