Sep 17, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Schumer ditches Senate's informal dress code

Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa) walks through the Senate subway on his way to a vote in June. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) quietly has directed the Senate's Sergeant at Arms to no longer enforce the chamber's informal dress code for its members, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: The new directive will allow Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.), who tends to favor gym shorts and hoodies over the business attire traditionally required in the chamber, to linger on the Senate floor before and after votes.

  • "Senators are able to choose what they wear on the Senate floor. I will continue to wear a suit," Schumer said in a statement to Axios.
  • Fetterman, who was elected last year, initially followed Senate tradition and wore suits. But since returning to the Senate after being treated for clinical depression earlier this year, he frequently has sported the casual look he was known for as Pennsylvania's lieutenant governor.

Zoom in: The updated rule will go into effect this week, according to a Senate official. The change applies only to senators — staff members will still be required to follow the old dress code.

  • Under that standard, men and women have been required to wear business attire on the Senate floor — which has meant coat and tie for men.
  • But senators fresh off a plane or from the gym could circumvent the dress code by voting from the edge of the Senate floor, with one foot still in the cloakroom.
  • They could hold their thumb up or down to indicate their vote and then step back out of the chamber. Technically, they weren't considered to be in violation of the floor's dress code. Fetterman and other senators have voted this way.

The intrigue: It's unclear whether the Senate dress code is actually an official, written policy. It appears to be more of an informal custom, enforced by the Sergeant at Arms.

  • No senior staff contacted by Axios on Friday could find a written record of the rules — an omission that also has puzzled some on social media.

Between the lines: Five years ago, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) petitioned her colleagues to make some changes in the dress code, according to New York Times reporter Jennifer Steinhauer's book "The Firsts: the Inside Story of the Women Reshaping Congress."

  • After some grumbling by males, the standards for women's attire were relaxed. Afterward, women on the Senate floor were allowed to show their arms. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.), a triathlete, often goes sleeveless.

The other side: The House rules, which are more formal, also have been challenged — and updated — in recent years.

  • In the summer of 2017, then-Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) asked the House Sergeant at Arms to modernize the lower chamber's dress code.
  • He was responding to a social media uproar about the dress code for female reporters, which morphed into a bigger protest movement by lawmakers.
  • "Before I yield back, I want to point out I'm standing here in my professional attire, which happens to be a sleeveless dress and open-toed shoes," then-Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) said at one point on the House floor, according to CBS News.

Flashback: Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) was a strict enforcer of the old House dress code when he was speaker from 2011 to 2015.

  • "Members should wear appropriate attire during all sittings of the House, however brief their appearances on the floor may be. You know who you are," Boehner said in 2015.

What they're saying: "Generous interpretations of the Senate floor dress code can only stretch so far before you have to square up and make formal changes," said Eric Ueland, a former longtime Senate staffer.

  • "Hopefully this round will also protect the floor privileges of senators and staffers who don't want to wear socks."

Go deeper... Read: 46 GOP senators slam Schumer's Senate dress code enforcement change

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