HELENA — Montana lawmakers advanced Thursday a strict dress code proposed by Republicans that would apply to House legislators, legislative staff and members of the media working inside the Capitol.
The House rules committee voted in favor of the rules, which would require men to wear a suit or “dress slacks, jacket, and tie,” and require women to wear “dress slacks, skirt, jacket and dress blouse or suit-like dress.” Both men and women would be required to wear dress shoes or boots, and explicitly prohibited from wearing sandals, flip flops and tennis shoes.
The vote split along party lines, with Republicans in favor of the measure and Democrats opposed. The proposal heads next to a vote by the full House, where Republicans hold a two-thirds majority.
The dress code was brought forward more than two months after the legislative session began, after a Republican lawmaker objected to a male Democrat’s decision not to wear a tie on the House floor. Ties have been part of an unwritten expectation loosely enforced by lawmakers.
The sponsor of the measure, Republican Rep. Barry Usher, said it would clarify expectations regarding attire. But Democrats raised questions about ambiguities in the proposal, saying it lacked specific instructions for the kinds of dresses and ties that would be permitted. They also raised several questions, such as whether women could still substitute sweaters for jackets, as is common practice.
If passed by the full House, the new rules would empower the sergeant at arms to enforce the dress code and to bar members who have breached the dress decorum from entering House chambers and committee rooms until they comply with the code. The requirement would apply also to lawmakers participating in the legislative session remotely and appearing in the room by video conference. Usher said lawmakers would still be able to vote by proxy or by participating in the session remotely without appearing by video.
The rules proposed by Usher left out language that received initial support during a committee meeting last week, which some have called sexist. That language, initially offered by GOP lawmakers ahead of the 2015 session but quickly shot down, stated that women “should be sensitive to skirt lengths and necklines.”
During a hearing on the rules on Thursday, Democrats said the proposal emphasized appearances instead of other aspects of decorum they see as more important.
“There are many in this body that uphold the ideals of earnest and sincere representation,” said Democratic Rep. Jim Hamilton. “Lacking those attributes cannot be changed nor developed by somebody’s attire.”
Republicans countered that continuing the tradition of wearing formal clothing in the state Capitol denoted respect for the institution.
Rep. Derek Skees, a Republican who chairs the rules committee, called the rules “a visual representation of the respect we have for the folks who sent us here.”
“How can we expect others to respect us if we have no limitations?” Skees said.
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