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Spin Control: Time to stop worrying about what lawmakers wear and focus on what they get done

U.S. Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., arrives for the "AI Insight Forum" at the Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill on Wednesday in Washington, D.C.  (Getty Images)

As the nation struggles with a wide range of economic and social problems, and the average temperature of the entire planet seems to inch upward to dangerous levels, Congress seems convulsed with a more pressing question.

Should the junior senator from Pennsylvania be forced to wear a suit on the Senate floor, and stop wearing a hoodie and gym shorts when wandering around the nation’s Capitol?

Congress, like many legislative bodies, apparently subscribes to the 500-year-old maxim from Erasmus that “clothes make the man.” The learned theologian actually was quoting an ancient Roman, so it was written in Latin, but you get the drift. Mark Twain later appended the saying to note that “naked people have little or no influence on society.”

Twain was writing in the days before the internet, where naked people seem to have a significant influence on a certain segment of society, but that’s beside the point.

Legislative bodies try to uphold the appearance of decorum, even if members are busy plotting ways to slip a chunk of pork for their constituents in to a bill while stealing a chunk from someone else’s constituents, or getting even with an adversary for a disagreement over doctrine.

In 1856, a South Carolina representative nearly beat to death an abolitionist Massachusetts senator in a disagreement over slavery. There are no photographs of the event, but based on all the illustrations of the time, they were both wearing coats and ties.

The first legislative body I was assigned to cover, as a college student, was a county commission in central Missouri. It had no formal dress code, but the men always wore suits and ties and the women dresses. My editors instructed me to dress like a grown-up to be treated like a grown-up, and wear a dress shirt and tie out of respect for the democratic process. When I said I didn’t have one of the latter handy, they replied, “Buy or borrow one.”

I followed that advice at a later job when assigned to cover my next legislative body, the Nebraska Unicameral, where the understood dress for members, staff and reporters covering it was what might now be called “business attire” – coat and tie for men, dress or skirt of at least knee-length for women.

There was, however, a rebel to that stricture. Ernest Chambers, a senator from Omaha, stood out not just because he was the lone Black face in a sea of 48 other white ones, but because he always wore jeans and a T-shirt or short-sleeved sweatshirt over well-muscled biceps.

When he arrived for his first session, a small-town senator from the state’s northeast edge was so incensed by Chambers’ attire that he suggested the legislature adopt a formal dress code, a long-time friend and colleague, Don Walton of the Lincoln Journal Star recalled. Chambers promptly suggested it might need to be amended to require all senators to wear deodorant. “And nothing further happened,” Walton said.

Chambers’ casual attire also went over well with average working stiffs – and this being Nebraska, they were mostly white – even if the senator’s stances on some issues were controversial. He went on to be the longest-serving member of that body.

At the other end of the sartorial spectrum, Eastern Washington’s long-time congressman, Tom Foley, was hardly seen without a well-tailored suit, crisp white shirt and perfectly knotted tied. It was his standard attire in both Washingtons, whether in a tastefully decorated office or on the campaign trail in a district that included farmers and timber workers.

There was a an oft-repeated story – possibly apocryphal, but absolutely plausible – that when an aide suggested he dress down a bit to go campaigning in wheat country, Foley said no. People expected to see the person they send to Washington, D.C., to represent them to be dressed like a congressman, he said.

Despite their vast differences on the question of what to wear on the job, Chambers and Foley were two of the most effective legislators I ever saw. Which might suggest that, at least when it comes to elected officials, Erasmus’ axiom of clothes making the man (or woman) isn’t really true.

For the next month, Congress could try an experiment. If Sen. John Fetterman – or any other member of Congress – is more comfortable in sweatpants and a hoodie, jeans and T-shirt a white tie and tails, a ball gown or a muumuu, they can wear it.

Put on whatever they are comfortable working in. And get to work.

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