What the Senate's Dress Code Is Really About

What the Senate's Dress Code Is Really About

Disputes over dress codes have been ongoing for decades, and defenders of high standards such as mandatory suits and ties have fought a losing battle.  Even exclusive private clubs have generally surrendered, though strict requirements typically remain on the books.  Photographs of Major League Baseball games from the 1920s depict just how far this trend toward casual attire has come: nearly all fans favored suits and ties, most with fedoras in cool weather, boat hats in summertime.  Today you can see baseballs caps in fashionable restaurants.

This battle over appropriate attired has now reached the U.S. Senate, when Majority Leader Chuck Shumer (D-N.Y.) recently announced that Senate officers would no longer enforce sartorial standards for those on the Senate's floor.  Observers knew that this change was directed at a single senator, Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.), who is typically attired in gym shorts, a hoodie, and cheap tee-shirts, an outfit light-years from the standard male Senate "uniform" of a business suit and tie.  To a lesser extent, the order targeted Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.), who had chaired Senate proceedings in a purple wig and zebra prints (no formal dress code for female senators, however).

Not everybody endorsed the new "anything goes" policy.  Forty-five Republican senators signed a letter objecting, with Senator Rick Scott (R-Fla.) putting it succinctly: "The Senate floor is a special place.  It's not hard to show it some respect and dress like a grown-up."  To be sure, a loophole has long existed — senators could shout "yea" or "nay" from the Senator's doorway whatever their attire — but Schumer's new policy now limits all restrictions.  Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) even joked that she would soon wear a bikini on the floor.  Note that this change will be viewed by the public, since C-SPAN televises Senate proceedings. 

This is not a mountain out of a molehill.  The stakes are far larger than a single senator's gym shorts.  The concept of "legitimacy" is central to the dispute's wider significance.  In a nutshell, legitimacy is the extent to which people obey political authority because they freely want to.  When a king's rule rested on divine right, subjects obeyed, since that was God's will.  In the United States, legitimacy flows from elections.  Absent legitimacy, compliance must rest on brute force or bribery.  Governments are therefore rightly concerned with sustaining legitimacy.

Like a bank account balance, legitimacy can be exhausted.  Divine right might not save a succession of idiotic, drunken kings.  

The public behavior of public officials undergirds legitimacy.  At some point, citizens of a democracy will no longer accept laws if enacted by a Legislature lacking public respect, and legislators know this.  The House of Representatives has procedures for censuring and reprimanding members who have disgraced the institution, and these measures have been used.

Dress codes help sustain legitimacy.  Wearing a suit and tie, a clean dress shirt, polished shoes, having a decent haircut, and all the rest unambiguously announces that one takes law-making seriously.  Putting everything together requires daily effort and tells onlookers, "I put effort into being a senator."  What if legislators, like some on Zoom, dressed in pajamas while slurping coffee from a paper cup?  Who would trust that legislators so slovenly could possibly understand a trillion-dollar budget?

A suit and tie (and comparable clothing for female senators) is not just today's any old outfit.  A well tailored suit, clean starched shirt, proper tie knot, and all the rest convey authority.  That's why this "look" is mandatory in the top echelons of banking, law, university administration, and everywhere else where authority needs to be established.  People respect that look.  Even a dirty hippy would not hire a financial adviser who resembles Senator John Fetterman.  The hippy would rationally want advice from somebody who looks the part of a financial expert, even if he himself never dresses that way.  Senator John Fetterman looks like a J.V. basketball coach.

Though there may not be written rules, legitimate political bodies must prohibit undignified behavior.  For members of Congress, this means no eating at their desks, no smoking, no reading newspapers while business is being conducted, no boisterous gossiping with colleagues, at least a semblance of staying awake, sitting upright, and similar other outward signs of seriousness.  What would the public think if C-SPAN depicted members of Congress engrossed in their iPhones while eating Chinese take-out, all while a fellow legislator explained a multi-billion-dollar health care bill?

Further add rules about civility: no foul language, no derogatory comments about fellow members, no threats of violence or efforts to intimidate, no ranting and raving or otherwise detracting from decorous behavior.  Civil society rests on civility.  Even an ideological enemy in the Senate will be called "my esteemed colleague," and Democrats might refer to the Republican Party as "my valued colleagues on the other side of the aisle."  Especially impermissible is shouting down others or otherwise displaying discourtesy.  Yes, members of Congress may say foolish things, but fellow senators cannot rebuke them with "You are a f------ moron." 

Today's college campuses illustrate an advancing decline of civility.  Yes, the college professors are still admired, but the occupation's stockpile of legitimacy is disappearing, and this decline is largely self-inflicted.  This is particularly visible in attire where the old dress code of tweed sportscoats and ties have mostly been replaced by professors attempting to look like scruffy undergraduates.  Nor do professors object if students fail to use the formal title "Professor" when addressing them.  First names may even be permitted, if not welcomed.

Nor are many modern academics reluctant to use "earthy" language while denouncing their enemies.  Also long gone is the principle of being even-handed and not using the classroom as a bully pulpit to advance a personal agenda.  Worst of all, at least some professors encourage their students to shout down "controversial" speakers to destroy reasoned debate.  Such behavior will invariably de-legitimize the university.  The upshot, predictably, is fewer youngsters attending college.

Permitting John Fetterman to wear his gym shorts on the Senate floor will not destroy democracy.  But it may well, if ever so slightly, undermine the Senate's public standing.  As with exclusive restaurants, dropping the tie requirement was soon followed by abolishing mandatory jackets, and then shorts and baseball caps were permitted, then tee-shirts, and now the clientele may be indistinguishable from customers at McDonald's.  Though, as recent experiment showed, dress codes still exist — when a N.Y. Post reporter dressed like Fetterman arrived at Manhattan's exclusive Le Bernardine ($480 for dinner and wine prix fixe menu), he was denied entry.

The historical survival of the U.S. Congress is a remarkable feat.  Elsewhere, legislatures vanished after a few years as popular support withered away.  After all, who would want to be governed by pompous windbags who turn policy debates into obscenity-filled food fights?  The collapse of civility is never sudden; decline arrives on the installment plan, and John Fetterman may be making the first payment.

Image: John Fetterman.  Governor Tom Wolfe via Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Posted at 12:00 AM

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