Opinion: Senate’s relaxed dress code doesn’t exactly exhibit our best and brightest in a good light

AP File Photo/Jacquelyn Martin / Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pennsylvania, waves to members of the media on April 17 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

The United States Senate is now supposed to get used to John Fetterman in sweats. How about Chuck Schumer in a wife-beater, Dianne Feinstein in a bikini or Mitch McConnell in a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles costume? To go back a few years, how about Hillary Clinton in capris or Robert Byrd in his full Ku Klux Klan regalia?

Schumer, the Democratic Senate majority leader, directed the body's sergeant-at-arms to stop enforcing an unofficial dress code for its 100 members this week to accommodate John Fetterman, the hulking freshman Pennsylvania Democratic senator who began showing up at the Capitol in May in shorts and hoodies after being hospitalized with clinical depression.

On Wednesday, 46 Republican senators — including Tennessee's Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty — sent a letter to Schumer, asking him to reverse the change, saying that "allowing casual clothing on the Senate floor disrespects the institution we serve and the American families we represent."

Hagerty, for his part, said Democrats were attempting to "transform America, to take us to a place that is much less respectful than we historically have been."

We tend to agree with the GOP's point — that it casts as unserious the serious work that senators do in crafting laws for the American people, sending troops into battle and dispensing all of the money hard-working taxpayers must send to Washington, D.C., every day.

Oh, we get the Democratic narrative arrived at after Schumer made his decision that Congress has more important things to do than debate the Senate's dress code, but no business in the upper chamber has stopped because of an objection about the change. That's just the distraction Democrats are going with at the moment.

We remember an associate pastor who routinely came to church dressed in suits each week, hair perfectly in place and pocket square properly displayed. He said it was important to dress his best because God had given us his best. Made sense at the time and still does.

Now, obviously, Senate decorum has changed with the times. We haven't seen a lot of powdered wigs and knee breeches in C-SPAN coverage lately. A 1993 change, for example, allowed women to wear pants on the Senate floor. In 2019, women were permitted to wear sleeveless dresses and open-toed shoes.

And we wouldn't be opposed to the Senate having one or more day of the week where dress is less casual, a business casual look instead of business professional. Millions of once more formal businesses have adopted just such policies. But have we reached the point of such slouchiness in this country where shorts and hoodies convey the proper look for any of the 100 senators that millions of people go to the polls to elect and for whom millions of dollars are given in campaign contributions every six years?

Tennessee General Assembly rules don't appear to offer language about what state lawmakers can or can't wear, but earlier this year a spokesperson for House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, said a longtime Black Democratic lawmaker, the late Lois DeBerry, "established a precedent for attire that remains in place today; men must wear a coat and tie if they wish to be recognized in committee or on the House floor. Ms. DeBerry would frequently address members violating this precedent and remind them of the requirement. The speaker will continue to follow the precedent and the path established by Ms. DeBerry to honor her and her incredible legacy within our legislative body."

Sexton made his remarks after Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, entered the chamber one day in a black dashiki, a traditional West African loose-fitted shirt. True to form, when an objection was made to his improper attire, the publicity-seeking lawmaker termed it white supremacy.

Closer to home, we see Chattanooga City Council members and Hamilton County Commission members still outfitted mostly in business professional wear. We've observed slightly less formal attire at small municipalities in Hamilton County and around the state.

We're with Hagerty, though, that Democrats want to transform America — and not in a good way — but we're not so sure that is Fetterman's gig. The scion of a wealthy family, the Pennsylvania senator — according to numerous accounts — wore casual clothes as the mayor of a small town in order not to call attention to his family's wealth. Now it has become a part of his image, his recent hospitalization notwithstanding.

So, today, wearing slouchy clothes and refusing to follow Senate decorum has become something of a way of calling attention to himself.

We'd prefer our senators wake up every day thinking about how to serve their constituents well rather than what odious gym clothes they can put on to stand out.