Sep 20, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Washington gasps at the Senate's new dress code

Pennsylvania Senator John Fetterman, wearing a blue short-sleeved shirt and short pants, is shown in a hallway in the U.S. Capitol.

Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa,), right, arrives at a weekly Senate Democrats' lunch at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday. Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer's (D-N.Y.) move to scuttle the chamber's informal dress code collided with tradition and politics Tuesday, as Washington found something to stew over besides the budget talks.

Driving the news: Schumer's decision, first reported by Axios, was denounced by Republicans, roasted by conservative media and given a thumbs-down by The Washington Post's editorial page — all of them casting it as the end of decorum in Congress' upper chamber.

  • "A casual dress code doesn't suit the Senate," the Post's op-ed headline said, adding that dressing formally "conveys respect for the sanctity of the institution and for the real-world impact of the policies it advances."
  • "It is ... all too imaginable that attention-seeking lawmakers will don T-shirts emblazoned with the names and mascots of their hometown sports franchises — or inflammatory partisan messages," the Post said.

Zoom in: Republican senators, meanwhile, fired off a letter to Schumer urging him to reverse his decision.

  • The Senate floor "is where we must make the gravest decision imaginable — whether to send our fellow Americans to battle," read the letter, signed by 46 of the 49 GOP senators.
  • "Allowing casual clothing ... disrespects the institution we serve and the American families we represent."

Not all of Republicans' criticisms were as weighty: Maine Sen. Susan Collins, who was among those who signed the letter to Schumer, joked Monday that she might wear a bikini on the Senate floor.

  • "I can't imagine that we're going to be wearing jeans on the Senate floor anytime soon," Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters Tuesday.

Schumer's directive means the Senate's Sergeant at Arms no longer will enforce the chamber's informal dress code for senators. Staffers still must wear business attire while on the Senate floor.

  • "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 last weekend.

Between the lines: Some of the criticism of Schumer's move was directed at Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.), who is widely viewed as the inspiration for the change.

  • The directive will allow Fetterman, who often prefers gym shorts and hoodies over the business attire traditionally required in the chamber, to linger on the Senate floor before and after votes.
  • 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.

Sen. Joe Manchin, a conservative Democrat from West Virginia, told The Hill on Tuesday that he'd told Fetterman the dress code changes were "wrong" and that not wearing a suit and tie "degrades" the Senate floor.

  • Another Democrat, Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), noted that Fetterman wasn't the only senator to have worn casual clothes on the chamber's floor.

Fetterman defended the new dress code and took a shot at his Republican critics.

  • "I figure if I take up vaping ... during a live musical, they'll make me a folk hero," he tweeted, an apparent reference to Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), who was kicked out of a "Beetlejuice" musical in Denver recently because of bad behavior.
  • The flap over the dress code is "mystifying," Fetterman told CNN. There are "much more important kinds of issues we should be addressing instead of, like, how I dress like a bum."

Go deeper