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Opinion: No Need to Be Up in Arms Over House Dress Code

Proper attire shows respect for institution, its people and work being done

As recent speakers, Paul D. Ryan and Nancy Pelosi have been responsible for enforcing rules governing attire in and around the House floor. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
As recent speakers, Paul D. Ryan and Nancy Pelosi have been responsible for enforcing rules governing attire in and around the House floor. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Thank God for the House dress code: If it were up to the general public, the rules might require reporters to be attired in sackcloth and ashes or tar and feathers.

By now, you’ve probably heard that Speaker Paul Ryan is taking heat because a female reporter was kicked out of the area adjacent to the House floor — the Speaker’s Lobby — when her outfit didn’t meet the standards laid out in the House rules. Apparently, like Michelle Obama and Melania Trump, she dared to bare arms.

That’s a no-no in the stuffy House, but not one unique to women. Men must wear jackets and ties in the Speaker’s Lobby, as I can attest after occasionally having had to borrow a tie or leave the lobby.

Because he’s speaker, Ryan’s ultimately responsible for enforcing or ignoring precedent, but the regulations governing dress in and around the House floor have been in effect since long before he was first elected. And I can assure you reporters were removed from the Speaker’s Lobby for failing to comport with the dress code when Nancy Pelosi ran the House. Pelosi has been known to wear sleeveless dresses herself (but not on or around the House floor).

Vanity Fair notes that, while the House rules are a little ambiguous, many other entities — from Wimbledon to the rush week rule-makers for the Cornell chapter of Pi Phi in 2010 — are much more clear in their fashion prescriptions. Technically, the House dress code is found in the chamber’s precedents, which could be altered by a new official rule at any time by a vote of the full House. Since lawmakers haven’t made any attempt to do that in recent memory, they are all equally responsible for the current state of sartorial affairs.

Still, the question of who is to blame for the regulations is less important than whether they make sense. I think they do.

Is it too much to ask that, in the name of decorum, lawmakers and reporters — men and women alike — dress like they’re going to work at the United States Capitol rather than a backyard barbecue? It’s not.

Wearing appropriate attire shows respect for the institution, the people who work there and, most important, the serious business being done on behalf of the people they represent (even if many of those people wander around the Capitol in tank tops and shorts).

I have no patience for reporters who complain that they don’t know the rules. After all, they are reporters, and it would take just one phone call to the House press gallery to find out which attire is required and which is not welcome — not much different than a nice restaurant.

While the Senate doesn’t have the same kind of code, reporters in the hallways on that side of the dome dress a lot like their House counterparts — probably because most of them aren’t sure when they’ll have to head over to the House to talk to a source or watch a vote. All in all, the dress code keeps a professional aura around the work done by lawmakers and journalists in the Capitol.

However, it should be enforced with much greater sensitivity. Some reporters have described the experience of being kicked out of the Speaker’s Lobby for a dress-code violation as shaming. That’s completely unacceptable.

It’s not easy to tell a reporter that she’s showing too much skin without sounding like a judgmental jerk, but the people who work around the House chamber should keep in mind the purpose of the rules.

If the point of the dress code is to help maintain a decorous environment, then it is imperative that the people charged with enforcing the strictures show sensitivity and respect. It is incumbent upon them to both eject violators of the code and do so in a fashion befitting the civility of the House.

There’s absolutely no reason to make anyone feel ashamed because they forgot to wear a jacket or they have open-toed shoes on. This isn’t Saudi Arabia.

The point is, everyone who works in the Capitol should show some respect. Reporters should dress up to the standards of the House. If they break the rules, they should be quietly reminded of them and asked to move into a space outside the lobby with as little fanfare as possible. If the guidelines need to be more clear — or perhaps a little more lenient (I mean, who really thinks a sleeveless dress is going to bring down western civilization?) — then a member should propose a change to the House rules. Any volunteers?

Roll Call columnist Jonathan Allen is a co-author of “Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign” and has covered Congress, the White House and elections over the past 16 years.