They try to keep this joint classy.
The U.S. House of Representatives has a few similarities to those posh restaurants which require men to wear jackets. Kind of like the Pump Room in Chicago which ticked off Phil Collins to the point that he recorded the Grammy-winning album “No Jacket Required.”
Jackets are required in the House. Ties too. Rule XVII, Section 5 says so.
“Members should dress appropriately which has traditionally been considered to include a coat and tie for male Members and appropriate attire for female Members. Members should not wear overcoats or hats on the Floor while the House is in session.”
After all, it’s the House of Representatives. Representing the American people. Doing serious work.
“The Sergeant-at-Arms is charged with the strict enforcement of this clause,” warns the House rules.
The Sergeant-at-Arms may be charged with strict enforcement. But it’s generally not that strict.
Check out how lawmakers dress for the first vote of the week on a Monday night. They roll into the Capitol around 6 pm after jetting back to Washington from their districts. When the bells signal the vote sequence at 6:30 pm, House members float in and off the floor, decked out in a sartorial goulash.
Most lawmakers are dressed impeccably. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) are the standard-bearers. Boehner is fastidious about his appearance. He always wears a starched shirt and a print tie bound into a flawless, Windsor knot. Pelosi is the envy of many fashionistas, featuring an array of skirt suits and necklaces.
But some lawmakers wander into the House chamber sans tie, in blue jeans or even without a jacket.
And no one ever bars them from the House chamber for breaking the rules.
In fact, lawmakers appear to be mostly immune from this dictate. The chamber security staff and U.S. Capitol Police are quick to block any Congressional staff or journalists from the Speaker’s Lobby by the House floor if they aren’t suited up properly. But lawmakers come and go with nary an impediment.
Which brings us to the curious case of Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL).
Rush came to the House floor to speak about Trayvon Martin Wednesday morning. Rush wore a smart, charcoal suit with thin pinstripes accompanied by a lavender shirt. The Illinois Democrat punctuated the ensemble with a lilac and silver silk tie.
And a hoodie.
“Racial profiling has to stop,” the Congressman said on the floor. And with that, Rush removed his suit coat to reveal a grey hoodie underneath. He then ensconced his head in the hoodie and donned sunglasses.
“Just because someone wears a hoodie does not make them a hoodlum,” Rush said.
Rep. Gregg Harper (R-MS) found himself presiding over the House at that moment.
“The gentleman will suspend,” Harper admonished Rush, multiple times. Harper banged the gavel. Rush continued, not yielding and raising his voice as he quoted scripture.
“The member will suspend!” Harper demanded, thwacking the gavel.
In all, Harper rapped the gavel 29 times in an effort to curtail Rush’s broach of decorum. Assistant to the Sergeant-at-Arms Joyce Hamlett then confronted Rush in the well of the chamber and escorted him off the floor.
“The Member is no longer recognized,” declared Harper.
This left some wondering why officials removed Rush and yet there are no consequences for other lawmakers who broach decorum?
Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) Chairman Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO) is one of those with questions. And Cleaver plans to send Boehner what he described as “a friendly, hand-written note” to inquire about the perceived, uneven enforcement of the House dress code.
“Some (CBC) members are asking about it. Whenever rules are not enforced, you create the opportunity for somebody to believe they have been singled out,” Cleaver said. “You see it during late night votes. People standing in the back with jeans and no jackets and no ties.”
To be sure, lawmakers not properly attired are rarely recognized to speak on the floor. In addition, the Sergeant-at-Arms sought to extricate Rush from the chamber because he didn’t obey Harper’s repeated orders to cease speaking. A Member must stop when ruled out of order. Yet Rush ignored Harper and prattled on.
But Rush’s vestments were another story.
Just a few months ago, lawmakers unexpectedly summoned Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) to the floor to manage a bill. Frank didn’t appear in the appropriate garb because he had just undergone surgery and a cast encircled his arm. Frank wore a blue shirt sans collar and no tie. He slung a suit coat over his shoulders like a cloak because he couldn’t fit his cast through the sleeve.
House regulars will attest that Reps. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-IL) and Duncan Hunter Jr. (R-CA) frequently show up to evening votes in jeans. The same can be said for Rep. Sam Graves (R-MO) who periodically materializes at votes in a bomber jacket.
To John Boehner, the decorum lapses became so acute that the Speaker personally assumed the dais twice in recent months to admonish lawmakers about their apparel. One occasion was immediately following the emotional resignation of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) in January.
“Members should wear appropriate business attire during all sittings of the House, however brief their presence on the floor might be,” Boehner scolded. “You know who you are.”
No one can recall another occasion where a House Speaker implored everyone to dress for success.
Emanuel Cleaver says he’s pleased Boehner is calling out members, saying Rush’s hoodie habit “presents us with an opportunity.”
“They need to know, we don’t care what the case is or what time of day it is. Those are the rules,” Cleaver said.
Regardless, Cleaver thought that Harper, perhaps at the behest of the Parliamentarian and the Sergeant-at-Arms, could have been a bit lenient with Bobby Rush. The Missouri Democrat says the issue is augmented when Rush spoke about the killing of black a teenager who many believe was the subject of racial profiling.
“The presider should have shown more deference,” Cleaver said. “You can put all kinds of motives behind a single action when you don’t enforce the rules.”
Debates about what lawmakers are allowed to wear in the House chamber are nearly as old as the republic. In 1822, four lawmakers tried to ban the custom of wearing hats in the chamber. Their effort failed because the old House chamber lacked cloakrooms in which to store hats and coats. But the House adopted a no topper policy in 1837.
Garish hats were the trademark of the late Rep. Bella Abzug (D-NY) when she came to Congress in the 1970s. At a time when many women in the workforce held clerical positions, Abzug always wore wide-brimmed hats so people knew she wasn’t a secretary. The House rejected her appeals to wear a hat on the floor.
Nancy Pelosi noted that women were prohibited from wearing pantsuits in the chamber when she came to Congress in 1987. In fact, former Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-CO) said her fashion choices nearly ignited a political firestorm in 1973.
“The day I wore a pantsuit onto the floor you’d have thought I asked for a land base for China,” Schroeder “Does it make any difference if I have a bow in my hair or not?”
Just last year, Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL), who was Trayvon Martin’s Congresswoman, attempted to don her snazzy cowboy hats when appearing on the House floor. But the House brass was unmoved. Wilson wears her signature hats everywhere else on Capitol Hill. But doffs her hats when she heads to vote.
House regulations don’t apply in the Senate. In September, 2004, then Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-CO) managed a Congressional spending bill on the floor dressed in a full Native American headdress festooned with fringe, tassels and feathers.
An iconoclastic senator who tooled around Washington on a Harley and sported a ponytail, Campbell was a chief in the Northern Cheyenne Tribe. He wore the costume because he was running late to a ceremony at the new National Museum of the American Indian and didn’t have time to change.
Senate rules permit its members to accomplish practically anything by unanimous consent. So Campbell sought the blessing of his colleagues to wear the Native American regalia and no one objected.
After Bobby Rush’s hoodie protest, most lawmakers appeared to comply with House rules. Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) was seen wearing a pinstripe suit with just a sweater shirt underneath and no tie during an afternoon voting sequence. But no one raised any official hackles.
The House held another series of votes just past 9:00 that night.
Late-night voting sequences are often the time the dress code becomes lax. But perhaps conscientious of the Rush’s dustup, most lawmakers appeared to be in compliance with the regulations.
This time, Polis appeared with a collared shirt and a green tie.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) returned to the Capitol modeling a sleek, sleeveless black cocktail dress and pearls.
“This is my opposite form of protest,” Wasserman Schultz joked. The Florida Democrat noted she had dressed to the nines for an Elle magazine reception which honored her as one of “10 Powerful Women in DC” at the Italian Embassy.
There were a few minor breaks with the House guidelines. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) wore blue jeans with a sport coat and tie. Rep. Robert Brady (D-PA) didn’t have a tie with his jacket. Rep. Darrell Issa (D-CA) was in a black, leather jacket with jeans. Rep. Kristi Noem (R-SD) wore tennis shoes and red pants.
But there were no complaints.
For his part, Rush defended his hoodie protest.
“Sometimes decorum has to take a back seat,” Rush said “Some of us in the House know the importance of civil disobedience and sometimes it makes a difference.”
On Wednesday morning, Rush was trying to make a difference about the death of Trayvon Martin. But with all the chatter about the Congressional dress code, he may have inadvertently made a difference about something else.