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  • Andy Alembik

Senate Dress Code Changes Raise Questions About Other Outdated Traditions

Andrew Angerer/ Getty Images

It’s a loss for sweatpants lovers on the Hill: on September 18, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced that the staff of the Sergeant at Arms would cease to enforce its unofficial dress code on the Senate Floor. But shortly after, on Wednesday, September 27, a formal dress code was officially instated. The dress code reflects one of many archaic Senate traditions, leaving some wondering which tradition will be rethought and modernized next.

This isn’t the first time the dress code in Congress has been modified. Women in the Senate were not allowed to wear pants on the floor until 1993. In 2019, after the election of the first two Muslim representatives, Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN), the House voted to permit religious headwear after an 182-year ban.

For some, the first person that comes to mind on the issue of dress codes is Senator John Fetterman (D-PA). Fetterman received media attention earlier this year for his choice of clothing during a news conference: a hoodie and gym shorts. After his 6-week stay at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for in-patient depression treatment, he returned to the Senate, still refusing to wear the suits he so disliked. He voted from doorways and coat rooms to bypass the dress code.

Dissent against Schumer’s move wasn’t fully along party lines. Senator Joe Manchin, (D-WV) said to Fetterman that the move was “wrong” and “degrades” the chamber. However, the most dissent came from Republicans. Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) jokingly said, “I plan to wear a bikini tomorrow to the Senate floor.” John Cornyn (R-TX) said that Schumer “has done everything he can to destroy the traditions of the Senate.”

The move to reinstate the dress code came after criticism like this, along with a letter signed by 46 Republican Senators. This letter led Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Mitt Romney (R-UT) to introduce a resolution called SHORTS (SHow Our Respect To the Senate) that requires “business attire be worn on the floor of the Senate, which for men shall include a coat, tie, and slacks or other long pants.”

With old traditions being redefined and, in some cases, codified in the Senate, some are raising questions about what the future may hold for other traditions, specifically the filibuster.

“Filibuster” is the general term for any organized effort, by one or more senators, to block a bill, nomination or other measure from coming to a vote. It is a strategy that has been used since the earliest days of the Senate, with its first form consisting of holding the floor with long speeches. As its popularity grew in the 19th and 20th centuries, many lawmakers and citizens alike became frustrated, as there was no way to formally end a filibuster on the floor. In 1917, Senators finally adopted a rule that a two-thirds vote would be needed to invoke cloture or end a filibuster. In 1975, this was changed to 60 votes or three-fifths of the Senate.

There has been a growing movement to do away with the filibuster. To filibuster in the past, a senator or a group of senators needed to hold the floor by speaking for an extended period of time. But today, “senators can filibuster simply by objecting to the Senate moving ahead to a vote – as long as they have 40 or more of their colleagues behind them”. This, many argue, ruins the point.

Representative Anna G. Eshoo (D-CA) wrote in an op-ed that the filibuster “defies the clear intent of the Constitution and its writers.” It allows a minority of the Senate to hold up legislation that the majority of the American people would otherwise be supportive of.

There was a push to end the filibuster in 2021 when Senate Republicans used it to block a voting rights bill known as the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. The bill passed the House with a slim margin but failed to make it through the Senate twice. While the bill was supported by a majority vote in the Senate during both passes, Democrats could not muster up the full 60 votes needed to end the Republicans’ filibuster. The bill died in the Senate.

The filibuster has often been interpreted throughout history as an undemocratic part of our government, especially since the framers of the Constitution did not include a rule requiring a supermajority for bills to pass through the Senate. As Hamilton wrote in Federalist 22, “If a pertinacious minority can control the opinion of a majority… the majority, in order that something may be done, must conform to the views of the minority; and thus the sense of the smaller number will overrule that of the greater, and give a tone to the national proceedings.” It seems even the founders foretold the dangers of giving a minority group too much power.

As superficial traditions like dress codes are being criticized in the Senate, it leaves many questioning when—or if—the filibuster will get the boot as well.


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