House dress code debate reignites amid hot D.C. summer

Debate over the strict, longstanding dress code for a special hallway outside the House chamber was reignited Thursday amid frustrations from some reporters about inconsistent enforcement of the rules.

A CBS News feature story about the rules of a hallway known as the Speaker’s Lobby unleashed long-standing irritation among some Capitol Hill journalists about the lack of clarity surrounding the dress code rules. 

There has been chatter among reporters covering the House in recent weeks about an apparent uptick in enforcement amid the hot Washington summer. 


The reporter population on Capitol Hill has ballooned since the start of this year thanks to interest in covering the new presidency. Alarm over sometimes-unwieldy crowds of journalists has recently prompted officials in the House and Senate to try to enforce some order.

New rope lines have gone up around the House chamber and in an underground subway leading to the Senate to try to keep hallways lined with reporters clear.

By June, many of the reporters unaccustomed to covering the House were confronted with the Speaker’s Lobby dress code. Female reporters in particular have been affected this year and in the past, approached after wearing sleeveless dresses or open-toed shoes that would be considered professional attire in many other settings. 

Three of the four hallways surrounding the House chamber feature no such dress code. But the Speaker’s Lobby, with its portraits of past Speakers and elaborate chandeliers, is considered a more formal setting meriting more formal clothes.

The specific rules for proper attire in the Speaker’s Lobby are not formally written anywhere. Then-Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) announced in the 96th Congress that proper dress for members of the House meant a coat and tie for men and "appropriate attire" for women, CBS noted.

The House then adopted a resolution requiring members “to wear proper attire as determined by the Speaker.”

The expectation is that the rules for the House floor also apply to the Speaker’s Lobby. But the vague “appropriate attire” for women, who already face many gray lines when it comes to professional clothing compared to men, often leads to confusion over its enforcement.

House chamber guards generally do not enforce the dress code rules for lawmakers, who are constitutionally obligated to vote. Members frequently wear jeans on the House floor, especially on days they rush to or from the airport.

At least two male House members have even been spotted in gym clothes on the House floor to vote.

So some reporters have felt confused when they were scolded by the chamber security guards for wearing something similar to a lawmaker that day.

Many female reporters, for instance, have been reprimanded by chamber guards for wearing sleeveless dresses. But many female lawmakers wear such dresses on the House floor without admonishment.

Emily Goodin, the managing editor of RealClearPolitics, tweeted that she was asked to leave the Speaker’s Lobby for wearing a sleeveless dress while a female lawmaker received no such pushback.  

Former first lady Michelle ObamaMichelle LeVaughn Robinson ObamaYouTube confirms it picked kids featured in Harris video Photos of the Week: Congressional Baseball Game, ashen trees and a beach horse The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Gears begin to shift in Congress on stalled Biden agenda MORE wore sleeveless dresses to former President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaEx-Saudi official says he was targeted by a hit team after fleeing to Canada Republican spin on Biden is off the mark Yellen expects inflation to return to normal levels next year MORE’s joint addresses to Congress. First daughter Ivanka Trump wore a sleeveless dress to President Trump's speech in February. 

They were not escorted from the House chamber over their outfits.