Phil Williams Commentary: Fetterman's Senate attire an affront to sacred trust

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

I’ve been watching the ongoing soap opera in D.C. over relaxed attire for U.S. senators on the floor of the Senate. To make Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman feel more at home, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has waived hundreds of years of rules and allowed that senators (aka Fetterman) can work on the Senate floor in whatever they feel like wearing at that moment.

Fetterman is being given carte blanche to schlep into the storied room where hallowed history has been made looking like a college frat boy on the morning after a three-day bender.

I will be honest: It bugs the stew out of me.

Phil Williams
Phil Williams

I stayed quiet at first because Fetterman is a man with actual physical and psychological issues. Then he started mocking anyone who dared comment on his street bum attire. In his weird and awkward style, he made gestures, strange noises and cast insults. He blamed Republicans for supposedly freaking out.

Never mind that Democratic Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin has expressed his concern, saying, “We need to have standards,” or that Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin is circulating a petition to have the wardrobe rules reinstated.

Then came the straw that broke the camel’s back as the freshman senator from Pennsylvania, swaddled in a giant hoodie-sack and a pair of gym shorts from 1992, took the dais in the Senate to preside over the proceedings.

It looked like a homeless man had wandered in off the street and taken hold of the gavel. But I still hadn’t found words to fully describe why it bugs me that a guy dressed like a bum was sitting in the presiding officer’s chair of the U.S. Senate.

Then the memories came back. And I knew.

I recalled when I was elected to the Alabama Senate. I knew it was special. I took it seriously. Then came the day that I made my first trip to the Alabama State House, rode the elevator to the seventh floor, went out on the Senate floor and found a desk with my nameplate already on it. It hit me that I was in a place where decisions were made that affected millions of lives. It was humbling and a bit overwhelming.

I was struck by the formality of the proceedings. Certain things had to be said at certain times and under certain conditions to promote the good order of the body and ensure that the records of the Senate were kept intact. And yes, there was a dress code. I was proud to be a part of it.

I remembered walking back from lunch one day in Montgomery with my friend and colleague Sen. Greg Reed, who now serves as the Senate Pro Tem. As Greg and I were walking, I looked over and saw the State Capitol with its white dome shining in the sun and was struck with a sense of being a part of something bigger than me. I told Greg, “I hope I never get used to this. The day I get used to this it’s time to go.”

In late 2014, the tired and battered Senate chamber was updated. The desks were made of plywood covered in chipped Formica that had been in place for decades. The carpet was stained, and mold was growing in the corners.

Sen. Del Marsh took it upon himself to orchestrate the renovation of the Senate chamber. Prison carpenters made the desks. The mold was cleared. The walls painted. A classic blue carpet was put down. I asked him if he was satisfied and he said, “Phil, now it looks like a place where the laws are made”.

Those memories reminded me that “the people’s business” is a sacred trust. Enacting laws should never be done with a laissez faire attitude. Every vote cast in the State House or the U.S. Capitol is a vote that affects millions of people.

The floor of the U.S. Senate is where cabinet officials, Supreme Court justices and our nation's highest ranking military officers are confirmed. The Senate floor is where decisions are made to raise taxes, declare war, address disasters and sometimes pass budgets. It is a special place where never more than 100 men and women serve at any one time.

Members of the Senate, for all their warts and blemishes, are still the people that we look to for decisions designed to “establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty”.

Even when they make decisions we don’t like, they should be constrained to do so in a manner that is professional, orderly and formal because the making of laws is one of the world’s most special things. There are nations full of people who have no idea what it means to have an elected person standing in the well of a Senate chamber swearing an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution.

We deserve to know that those who make our laws ... good or bad ... don’t do so as an afterthought, or a lark. The people deserve to know that a U.S. senator will not stumble in unshaven and half dressed like a college kid who suddenly remembered he had a term paper to write after staying up all night playing “Call of Duty”.

I don’t think Fetterman knows any better. But Schumer? He knows exactly what he’s doing. The making of laws is a sacred trust and should not be treated like a morning at the gym.

We, the people, deserve the respect of treating the making of laws like the special calling it is.

Phil Williams is a former state senator from District 10 (which includes Etowah County), retired Army colonel and combat veteran, and a practicing attorney. He previously served with the leadership of the Alabama Policy Institute in Birmingham. He currently hosts the conservative news/talk show Rightside Radio on multiple channels throughout north Alabama. The opinions expressed are his own.     

This article originally appeared on The Gadsden Times: Phil Williams looks at Senate dress code controversy