The world’s greatest deliberative body – the American Senate – could soon resemble a university classroom populated by slacking upperclassmen running the clock out on their education. And for that, we have Pennsylvania Senator John Fetterman to thank.
Senator Fetterman, the privileged son of parents who subsidised his lifestyle well into his 40s, has long donned gym shorts and a hoodie on the campaign trail in an effort to bolster his claim to being an everyman.
That claim and the wearable arguments he used to support it played a role in propelling him to a resounding victory over his flashy celebrity opponent, Republican Mehmet Oz, last fall. Even his post-stroke debate disaster, where he appeared to struggle to speak and process questions, wasn’t enough to sink his campaign.
As of this week, we can strike another tally mark in Fetterman’s win column: this time over the standards that United States senators have long held themselves to when they enter the upper chamber of Congress.
On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced that the Senate would officially be dropping its dress code requiring members to be clad in business attire when they enter the chamber. “There has been an informal dress code that was enforced,” explained Schumer, who has done away with it so “senators are able to choose what they wear on the Senate floor.”
He didn’t name Fetterman, but the decision was doubtlessly reached in order to accommodate the first-year legislator, who had been casting votes from the hallway to avoid throwing on a tie.
The Senate’s new Casual Everydays have been praised by some as a positive sign of Congress’s democratisation. The New York Times’ write-up called it “a bow to reality”, while The View’s Whoopi Goldberg declared that Schumer had done a “wonderful thing” for Fetterman.
MSNBC’s Chris Hayes brought the man of the hour himself onto his show for a fawning interview, during which he scornfully laughed at conservative critics of the dress code’s suspension. For his part, Fetterman wondered aloud to Hayes why anyone cared about what he wears around the Capitol.
“The Right have been like losing their mind, they’re just like ‘Oh my God, you know, dogs and cats are living together and you know like I said, aren’t there more important things we should be talking about rather than if I dress like a slob?”
“I think we should all want to be more comfortable, and now we have that option,” he told the press on Monday. “And if people prefer to wear a suit, then that’s great.”
What he and his defenders can’t seem to grasp is that the Senate’s accommodation of his preferences marks a triumph of privilege, not the common man.
Standards don’t exist to belittle or inconvenience those bound by them. Quite the opposite: their purpose is to flatten distinctions, set a singular expectation, and of course, show respect for the institutions that uphold them.
Few would submit that the United States Senate is not an institution worthy of respect and observation of its traditions. The room where constitutional amendments have been approved, civil rights acts have been passed, and Supreme Court Justices have been confirmed is deserving of deference. After all, if Henry Clay, Charles Sumter, John Kennedy, and John McCain put pride aside and dressed in their Sunday best to do the people’s business, so too can John Fetterman.
Yet in an age in which inclusivity is regarded by many – and certainly the bulk of the American Left – as the greatest good of all, any decision that can be colored as equitable or sensitive will be met with praise.
But making exceptions for the sake of preference is not inclusive. There’s nothing about John Fetterman’s religious beliefs or medical concerns that necessitate his being allowed to dress like he’s off to mow his lawn. The only given reason for his non-compliance with the old dress code is that he doesn’t wish to comply. By relaxing standards, Schumer isn’t accommodating Fetterman; he’s enabling him.
What this decision really says, whether Fetterman realises it or not is that the wants of the Senate’s members stand above the body itself. Its history and workings are but nuisances to its present occupants, and can be done away with on a lazy whim.
Of course some of Fetterman’s critics lack a leg to stand on. Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, who voted to deny Capitol Police officers who stood in harm’s way for Greene and her colleagues during the January 6 Capitol riot, is not a credible commentator on what constitutes “disgraceful” behavior.
The fact remains, however, that one’s greater sin does not excuse another’s lesser transgression.
Congress’s decline did not begin with John Fetterman’s slovenly selfishness or Chuck Schumer’s enablement of it. But their actions are a benchmark of the direction our country is heading in – the wrong one.