Editor’s note: On the morning of Sept. 28, The Diamondback published “Decorum requires dignity. The Senate should adhere to an inclusive dress code.” On the evening of Sept. 27, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution reformalizing its dress code while this column was being edited, which rendered parts of its argument outdated. We have left the column up in an effort to maintain transparency. We regret the error.
Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
The best part of witnessing a politically split Congress is seeing the different challenges each body faces. While one chamber is on the cusp of shutting down the federal government, the other is enacting new dress code standards for its members.
The level of importance between these two issues couldn’t be more stark. So let’s talk about the congressional haute couture.
The regulation of dress on Capitol Hill is far more elusive than the media portrays. Unlike most workplaces, there isn’t a universal set of rules for members and staff to adhere to. Instead, Hill staffers follow guidelines created by the members they work for, while congressional leadership dictates how members should dress.
Under the previous rules, everyone had to wear business professional attire. For men, a suit and tie were expected while women could wear either pantsuits or dresses when on the Senate floor. This strict standard had sexist elements and completely disregarded attire preferences for prospective gender-nonconforming senators.
What makes the issue more convoluted is the fact that rules surrounding proper attire for members are an unwritten informal custom. But last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer formally did away with the Senate’s apparent dress code by directing the sergeant at arms to no longer enforce it. This means senators are now allowed to wear practically anything they want.
In my view, this was a mistake. Instead, the United States Senate should maintain an inclusive, yet professional dress code for its members during legislative sessions.
There are benefits to having a dress code in professional working environments. It sets a standard of seriousness and commitment towards solving major issues. For a Senate known for its high-standard brand of lawmakers, having a dress code is paramount.
When defining a dress code for the Senate, it shouldn’t be about what is appropriate but rather what isn’t. Any dress code should inherently allow for different cultures, religions and identities to express themselves. For example, members who wish to wear a culturally significant outfit or religious piece should always be allowed to do so.
Since the former dress code was largely unwritten, there were no outlined accommodations for members wishing to wear cultural or religious garb. So instead of eliminating all standards, the Senate could’ve just adopted a more inclusive and business casual dress code. But instead, the new rules only cater to unprofessional attire that doesn’t have bearing on how senators can represent their constituents.
Dress codes should also be responsive to individual members’ personal circumstances. Some may have to wear alternative clothing due to a disability or medical issue. It shouldn’t be discriminatory, nor should it be arcane. But it should impose some standard of formality when Congress is in session.
What shouldn’t be allowed is anything perceived as casual in the culture one identifies in. The Senate chamber isn’t the stage to display garments you’d wear on vacation or during recreational activities.
I understand the desire to loosen up a bit. But it’s not an either-or situation. We can still have basic decorum without mandating jackets, ties and dress shoes.
A lot of senators believe the new dress code will lower the standards of the upper house. I have to agree with them. Without basic restrictions on what Senators can wear, members will inevitably take advantage of it and some may even push their limits.
If senators were spotted wearing hoodies, shorts, gym clothes and flip flops before the new rules, what should we expect them to wear now? Comically, it’s already been mentioned by one senator that they plan to wear a bikini.
There’s also a contrast in dress code standards between the general public and Senators when accessing the upper chamber. Visitor rules require gallery members to enter with appropriate professional attire while Congress is in session.
This discrepancy sends mixed signals. Citizens are expected to dress formally when entering the Senate chamber but Senators have the freedom to wear whatever they please. This also sends a message that rules are for thee but not for me.
It’s ridiculous that ordinary citizens of the public – regardless of their financial means – have a higher dress standard than senators. Why are we setting a lower standard for senators than for people who aren’t in elected office and have regular jobs? Senators are paid $174,000 a year, the least they can do is buy decent clothes and dress their part.
Critical decisions on healthcare policies, welfare programs and food insecurity are not a game. Senators grapple with these consequential issues every day, knowing full well their impact on millions of lives nationwide. It is imperative that our lawmakers approach these matters with the gravity they deserve. That begins with how senators present themselves, refraining from attire that’s worn on the field.
Hunter Craig is a senior public policy major. He can be reached at email@example.com.