Dressing down in the U.S. Senate

One of the more endearing characteristics of the West Virginia Legislature is its commitment to decorum. The House and Senate have dress codes and specific rules on behavior.

The Senate rule states, “Proper business dress attire shall be worn by all those admitted to the floor of the Chamber while the Senate is in session, which includes a coat and tie for men.”

And here is the House rule: “Minimum standards of dress shall consist of the wearing of a coat and tie and dress pants by males and the wearing of a suitable dress or an appropriate blouse and skirt or pants suit by females. Jeans or shorts shall not constitute proper attire.”

Staff and media follow the rules as well.

The effect is that actions on the floor have an air of formality that denotes a level of seriousness that is appropriate for governing.  Dressing and behaving (with rare exceptions) in a professional manner contributes to respect for the institution and the process.

And that bring us to the United States Senate.

Majority leader Chuck Schumer announced Monday that the chamber’s Sergeant-at-Arms will no longer enforce a dress code on the Senate floor. The Associated Press reported, “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.”

Conservative columnist Rich Lowery had a different definition of Fetterman’s “casual” dress of gym shorts and hoodie. “His standard uniform… makes it look like he just arrived after sitting on his couch, surrounded by empty pizza boxes, watching football games all weekend.”

Part of Fetterman’s appeal during his 2022 Pennsylvania Senate campaign was his “everyman” persona which was reinforced by his look. Yes, he has dressed up a few times since being elected, but according to the AP, he reverted to his signature hoodies and gym shorts after being released from the hospital where he checked himself in for depression.

Fetterman has dismissed the criticism of his attire and the change in the dress code. “They’re freaking out, I don’t understand it,” he said. “Like, aren’t there more important things we should be working on right now instead of, you know, that I might be dressing like a slob?”

That is the traditional lame argument when someone does not want to address an issue.

I’m sure Fetterman will have his defenders, with arguments like, “It doesn’t matter how you dress; it’s what you do.” Okay, but what does matter is, at a time when there is erosion of faith in institutions, individuals who are principals of those institutions make even more of an effort to maintain their credibility.

Chris Stirewalt, politics editor of NewsNation and fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, put it this way: “The clothes we wear and the things we speak to are not to show how important we are, but (to show) the respect that we have for other people and the respect we have for what we are doing.”

The late Senator Bob Dole needed an additional hour in the morning to get dressed. A war wound cost him much of the use of his right arm and he lost feeling in his left hand. He would lay out his clothes the night before and button all the buttons in advance.

“Buttons are the hardest thing , when you don’t have feeling,” Dole told the New York Times in a 1996 profile. “I have to be able to see the button and the buttonhole.” He learned to tie his tie with one hand.

Bob Dole made it to the Senate floor in a coat and tie. It is not too much to ask for John Fetterman to do the same.


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