Senate Ditches Dress Code

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    Senator John Fetterman waves to members of the media on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on April 17, 2023. (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)
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    The U.S. Senate meets in the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
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The stuffy U.S. Senate is now a bit less formal—for some. The Senate’s official clothes police will no longer enforce a dress code on the Senate floor. But the change prompted outrage from some of the chamber’s more formal members.

It’s unclear whether the Senate’s rules for formal attire were actually written down anywhere. But Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced Monday that the chamber’s Sergeant-at-Arms will no longer take names for dress infractions.

The new directive comes after Pennsylvania Senator John Fetterman openly wore shorts as he went about his D.C. duties. Fetterman voted from doorways in order to avoid getting into trouble for his casual attire.

Schumer didn’t mention Fetterman in his dress code statement. “Senators are able to choose what they wear on the Senate floor,” he says. “I will continue to wear a suit.”

First-term legislator Fetterman garnered praise earlier this year when he checked himself into the hospital for clinical depression. Many appreciated his honesty about his diagnosis—which came after a stroke on the campaign trail last year.

When Fetterman returned from treatment, he started wearing more casual clothes like hoodies and gym shorts. To him, those are a sign of his recovery. He checked with the Senate parliamentarian upon returning to Washington in April. He found that he could keep wearing casual clothes—as long as he didn’t walk on to the Senate floor.

Not everyone likes the casual code. Kansas Senator Roger Marshall calls it a “sad day in the Senate.” He says the people whom Fetterman and Schumer represent should be embarrassed.

Marshall believes senators should have a certain level of decorum. He compares the dress code to dressing up at a wedding to honor the bride and groom.

Senator Susan Collins of Maine says that the relaxed rules debase the institution of the Senate.

While walking to Monday evening’s vote in a short-sleeved button-down shirt and shorts, Fetterman said he wasn’t sure if he’d take advantage of the new rules just yet. “It’s nice to have the option, but I’m going to plan to be using it sparingly and not really overusing it,” he says.

Asked about criticism over the new code, Fetterman asked, “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?”

When Fetterman reached the Senate floor, he still voted from the doorway. “Baby steps,” he told reporters.

Some lawmakers embraced the change. Missouri Senator Josh Hawley donned jeans, boots, and no tie on Monday evening. Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy was also tieless. He says he’s been reprimanded in the past for not wearing a tie on the floor.

In recent weeks, Fetterman has become more comfortable joking around in the hallways and answering reporters’ questions. His words are sometimes halting due to his stroke and an auditory processing disorder.

“I think we should all want to be more comfortable,” Fetterman told reporters on Monday. “Now we have that option, and if people prefer to wear a suit, then that’s great.”