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Suit yourselves: The Senate formalizes a dress code just days after ditching it

Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., walks on Capitol Hill on Thursday. He says he will continue to wear a suit on the Senate floor in compliance with the newly codified dress code.
Mark Schiefelbein
Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., walks on Capitol Hill on Thursday. He says he will continue to wear a suit on the Senate floor in compliance with the newly codified dress code.

The Senate's move to relax its unofficial dress code has led to a surprising development: an official dress code.

Lawmakers voted unanimously on Wednesday to codify a business casual dress code for the Senate floor, just days after one of its leaders sought to do away with it altogether.

Last week Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer directed the Senate's sergeant-at-arms to stop enforcing the unwritten rule, allowing members to wear whatever they wanted. Senators have traditionally voted from the doorway of the nearby cloakroom if they happen to be dressed casually.

The change seemed primarily aimed at accommodating Pennsylvania Democrat John Fetterman, who regularly wears hoodies and gym shorts to work (but not on the Senate floor) since his hospitalization for depression earlier this year.

But it galled many senators — especially Republicans — who argued that allowing casual clothing on the floor would disrespect the institution and constituents they serve. Some Democrats also voiced concerns, including Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2-ranking Senate Democrat.

Forty-six Republican senators (all but three) sent a letter to Schumer demanding he reverse the change, writing, "The world watches us on that floor and we must protect the sanctity of that place at all costs."

That prompted West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin and Utah Republican Mitt Romney to introduce a resolution earlier this week that would formally instate an enforceable dress code for the Senate floor.

The SHORTS Act ("SHow Our Respect To the Senate," according to Politico) requires business attire, specifying "a coat, tie, and slacks or other long pants" for men. It doesn't say anything about women.

Manchin said on the Senate floor that for 234 years, senators had assumed there were some "basic written rules of decorum, conduct and civility, one of which was a dress code." And last week, they learned there were not.

"We drafted this simple two-page resolution that'll put all of this to bed once and for all, by codifying the long-standing practice into a Senate Rule and making it very clear for the sergeant of arms to enforce," he added.

Shortly before the vote, Schumer expressed his support for the resolution and thanked the lawmakers, including Fetterman, for their cooperation in working towards an agreement.

"Though we've never had an official dress code, the events over the past week have made us all feel as though formalizing one is the right path forward," Schumer said.

Fetterman says he'll comply (and offers up a meme)

Manchin described the resolution as a team effort and also credited Fetterman for his support. He said they'd had "many conversations" about the issue.

Fetterman — who presided over the Senate wearing a short-sleeved shirt last week — said on Wednesday that he would wear a suit while on the floor, and continue voting from the door while wearing casual clothing.

He has been poking fun at the dress code discourse, trolling naysayers on X (formerly known as Twitter) and even dropping custom merch (tees and hoodies, of course) in response to the criticism.

And he repeatedly called on his colleagues to channel their energy into more important issues, like the impending government shutdown or the corruption charges against Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez.

"The whole silly dress code thing was discussed," he told Insider. "We have so many other things that we could be addressing right now."

After the resolution's passage, Fetterman released a statement(and a tweet) with no words, just a photo of flannel-clad King of Queens actor Kevin James, smirking, with his hands in his jean pockets — a meme that's taken over the internet in recent days.

Meanwhile, a government shutdown looms

The dress code debate played out on Capitol Hill in the days ahead of the Sept. 30 deadline for avoiding a government shutdown.

Critics argue it's been a distraction, and have slammed lawmakers for using their energy to codify business casual rather than pass a critical spending bill.

Romney nodded to that in his remarks on the Senate floor after the resolution passed.

"This is not the biggest thing going on in Washington today," he said with a chuckle. "It's not even one of the biggest things going on in Washington today."

Still, he argued, a rare bipartisan victory shouldn't be overlooked:

"It's another example of Republicans and Democrats being able to work together and to solve — in this case — what may not be a real big problem, but it's an important thing and makes a difference to a lot of people."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman
Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.