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Suits are back: It’s been a wild two weeks for the Senate floor’s dress code

Senators unanimously agree to wear ‘business attire,’ as government speeds toward a possible shutdown

Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., speaks with reporters after the Senate Democrats’ weekly lunch in the Capitol on Wednesday.
Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., speaks with reporters after the Senate Democrats’ weekly lunch in the Capitol on Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

With a government shutdown just days away, late on Wednesday night lawmakers once again turned their attention to the most pressing issue facing the nation: the dress code on the Senate floor.

The Senate reversed last week’s decision to relax the unwritten fashion rules, adopting a resolution by unanimous consent that requires business attire on the chamber’s floor, “which for men shall include a coat, tie, and slacks or other long pants.”

It was largely assumed that the dress code was dropped as an accommodation to Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., whose preference for shorts and hoodies over suits and ties has inspired more than enough op-ed column inches to match his 6-foot-8-inch frame.

In floor remarks before the vote, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., thanked Fetterman for “working with me to come to an agreement that we all find acceptable,” and also acknowledged the resolution’s sponsor, Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., along with Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah.

Fetterman, for his part, responded to the fashion rule reversal with the earnest solemnity it deserves, issuing a press release with nothing more than a picture of comedian Kevin James grinning sheepishly — maybe even coquettishly? — which is part of a trove of “King of Queens” promo photos that have become internet memes in conjunction with the sitcom’s 25th anniversary.

Most Republican senators had joined together last week to send a letter to the majority leader expressing their “supreme disappointment and resolute disapproval” of his earlier decision to relax the chamber’s unofficial business attire requirement. Describing the Senate floor as a “place of honor and tradition” where life-and-death decisions are made, they argued that abandoning the dress code “disrespects the institution we serve.”  

Throughout his career, Fetterman’s blue-collar accoutrement, combined with his imposing physical stature, tattooed arms and graduate degree from Harvard University, have drawn outsize attention. Even as the mayor of Braddock, a Pennsylvania town of less than 2,000 people outside Pittsburgh, Fetterman was the subject of glowing profiles in international newspapers like The Guardian and appeared on national television shows like “The Colbert Report.”

Through it all, he’s used the media’s fixation on the superficial to talk about substance — after the initial uproar over the Senate dress code, Fetterman released a statement saying, “If those jagoffs in the House stop trying to shut our government down, and fully support Ukraine, then I will save democracy by wearing a suit on the Senate floor.”

The Senate on Tuesday unveiled a continuing resolution to keep the government open until Nov. 17. But far-right demands in the House that any CR include new funding for border security or exclude additional aid for Ukraine have few observers predicting that the measure can pass both chambers and get President Joe Biden’s signature before the new fiscal year begins on Oct. 1. 

Fetterman’s opponents have consistently done him the favor of criticizing his clothing, directing further media attention on him while providing him the chance to take the moral high ground by lamenting the time wasted debating his personal style instead of substantive policy.

The resolution was written to do little to police the fashion decisions of female senators, some of whom — most notably, Arizona independent Kyrsten Sinema — have faced criticism for having the temerity to wear bright colors or show skin above the knee.

It also will not prevent senators of all genders from continuing the custom of voting from the cloakroom just off the floor when they’re in a rush, which means they’ll still have an easy workaround when they want to go casual — and that rolled-up sleeves or polos, or even hoodies and shorts, will still be spotted around the Capitol.

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