Congress is bickering as usual. A potential federal shutdown is looming. Public respect for the elected representatives of government is at historic lows.
What a perfect time to announce that members of the world's greatest deliberative body are welcome to start coming to the U.S. Capitol looking like slobs.
That sarcasm is perhaps unbecoming for a newspaper editorial — but unbecoming seems to be the order of the day, now that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has officially ditched the Senate dress code for members while on the chamber floor.
It's true that post-pandemic fashion norms are, to put it mildly, relaxed. We won't claim for a second that, say, members of this Editorial Board are reliably clad in business attire, even when some of us are in the office. To say nothing of Zoom meetings, in which no one knows (nor needs to know) who is wearing slacks, jeans or gym shorts.
But we're not representing American democracy to the nation and the world from the televised floor of the United States Senate.
Schumer announced in a statement Monday that he is ditching the Senate's unofficial but long-observed rule requiring business attire for both male and female senators in the chamber. "There has been an informal dress code that was enforced," said the statement, but going forward, "Senators are able to choose what they wear on the Senate floor. I will continue to wear a suit."
Notably, the relaxed new standards don't apply to the staff who attend the senators. They still have to dress in business attire. Thus has Schumer achieved a curious outcome: He has cheapened the stately decorum of his chamber, while simultaneously confirming the public's view of Congress as being intolerably elitist — the unmistakable message when the elected class exempts itself from the rules it imposes upon others.
The announcement didn't explain Schumer's rationale, but it seems to have been in response to some members pushing the boundaries of the dress code lately with gym shoes and other provocations.
None has been more provocative than Sen. John Fetterman. The Pennsylvania Democrat reportedly has taken to standing in the cloakroom doorway to cast his votes, lest his trademark hoodie-and-gym-shorts getup cause a ruckus on the Senate floor.
All due respect to Fetterman's performative populism, but there are reasons why shorts and T-shirts are appropriate at softball games and barbecues but not at weddings or funerals. Or in the Senate.
Formal dress conveys respect for important occasions and settings. It puts that imperative — respect — above the imperatives of comfort and practicality that are perfectly acceptable in more casual endeavors.
Formal dress telegraphs dignity, which America's battered politics needs more than ever these days. With images currently bouncing around showing Colorado Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert at a recent theater performance arguing, vaping, groping and generally making more of a spectacle of herself than the actors onstage, dignity is already in short enough supply in Washington.
While it's unlikely that Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, will carry out her joking threat of showing up in the Senate chamber in a bikini, the potential for political fashion faux pas here is immense. Ponder the issue of T-shirts alone. "I'm with Stupid >" is among the milder possibilities of partisan mischief that, once you start thinking about it, feel almost inevitable.
It's not just about how the dresser is perceived; it's about how the dresser perceives him- or herself. Studies have long shown that one's mode of dress affects decorum and professionalism.
Not that a jacket and tie necessarily guarantee those qualities (heaven knows), but elected leaders should at least try and look the part. Especially in an era where too few of them act it.