In praise of John Fetterman’s handling of the dress code issue: The Pennsylvania Senator’s desire to wear casual clothes on the Senate floor set off a weeks-long controversy in Washington. Unlike some members of Congress, Fetterman got through the whole thing without any unprofessional outbursts.
John Fetterman and the Clothes Controversy
It was one of Washington’s oddest controversies in recent years: The Senate Majority Leader, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), announced that the U.S. Senate would be ditching its long-held dress code. While the announcement by Schumer did not mention any senator by name, the change was widely interpreted to accommodate Sen. John Fetterman (D-PA), who favors shorts and hoodies during public appearances.
The chance set off a massive backlash, from both veteran senators and editorial boards, and less than two weeks after the initial change, the Senate reversed itself, with the full body voting unanimously to formalize business attire as the dress code. The previous dress code had been unspoken, more of an understanding, but the change came as part of a bipartisan measure sponsored by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT).
“Though we’ve never had an official dress code, the events over the past week have made us all feel as though formalizing one is the right path forward,” Schumer said after the passage, per CNN. “I deeply appreciate Senator Fetterman working with me to come to an agreement that we all find acceptable, and of course, I appreciate Sen. Manchin and Sen. Romney’s leadership on this issue.”
Throughout all of this, one thing was notable: Fetterman himself did not whine or complain publicly, nor did he ever indicate that he took the issue particularly seriously.
Fetterman had declared, even before the formalization passed, that he would wear a suit while presiding on the Senate floor. Other times, he joked about it.
“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 next week,” Fetterman said in a statement in mid-September. A government shutdown was avoided, although it did not include money for Ukraine. Another time, in September, Fetterman compared his dress code predicament to the recent tribulations of Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO), including her misadventures in a Denver theater.
It was something of a lighthearted controversy for Fetterman to be a part of during his first year in the Senate- and it follows both the senator suffering a stroke before his primary win in 2022, and then spending weeks in a hospital earlier this year after suffering from clinical depression. The senator, to some degree, appears to have made strides in recovering from both.
When it comes to violating the sacred decorum of Congress, John Fetterman wanting to wear shorts and a hoodie in the Senate — and not exactly throwing a fit when he ultimately didn’t get his way — is far from the worst thing that’s happened in the Capitol of late.
Members of Congress this year have gotten into animated confrontations with each other on the floor of the House. They have shown intimate photos of the president’s son during Congressional hearings. They have launched a successful coup against the speaker of the House, without much of an evident plan for what to do afterward. They have launched an impeachment inquiry into the president of the United States for, essentially, no reason. A large chunk of the Republican caucus appears to be taking direct orders on most major questions from the former President of the United States.
And that’s to say nothing of the U.S. senator and U.S. representative indicted for federal crimes or, just over two years ago, the violent attack against the U.S. Capitol, which was cheered on by some elected officials.
Compared to that, John Fetterman’s tribulations about the dress code don’t come across as such a big deal.
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Stephen Silver is a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive. He is an award-winning journalist, essayist, and film critic, who is also a contributor to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Broad Street Review, and Splice Today. The co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, Stephen lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two sons. Stephen has authored thousands of articles over the years that focus on politics, technology, and the economy for over a decade. Follow him on X (formerly Twitter) at @StephenSilver, and subscribe to his Substack newsletter.