No member is to come into the House with his head covered, nor to remove from one place to another with his hat on, nor is to put on his hat in coming in or removing, until he be set down in his place. "
From Thomas Jefferson's
"Manual of Parliamentary Practice"
Rep. Andrew Jacobs Jr., the Indiana Democrat who boasts he sometimes spends as much as $70 a year on clothes, is campaigning to loosen the tie that binds, the necktie, that is to say, which custom decrees male members of Congress must wear with coats when they are on the floor of the House.
No dress code exists for female members, and Jacobs, who likes to remind everybody that the Equal Rights Amendment passed the House with 354 votes, quite simply wants equality.
In a poll of male and female colleaques (he calls it his "Harassed Poll") he has asked whether the House custom should be changed, in effect "liberating" male members by permitting them to use their own judgment on what is suitable attire at House sessions.
In matters of decorum, probably no other official body except the Supreme Court is more hidebound by custom than Congress, since the House dress code actually is nothing more than a brief reference to hats. Rule XIV, cl. 7, of "Rules of the House of Representatives," states that during the session of the House no member shall wear his hat . . ."
Nobody, however, took feisty, battling former Rep. Bella Abzug (D.-N.Y.) to task when she wore her hat both "coming in and removing" from the House despite an 1837 rule change that forbade any hat-wearing regardless of in-motion or in-situ.
Andy Jacobs once tested the code by wearing a sweater and open-necked shirt to the floor. He drew stares, frowns and even a couple of shakes of a rather forbidding-looking cane, but speaker Thomas O'Neill, Jr. (D-Mass.), who has the authority to "retire" members wearing unacceptable attire, was somewhat more avuncular.
O'Neill asked Rep. Martha Keys (D-Kans.), who is married to Jacobs, if she could do something to bring her congressman from Indiana into line. But Keys, who on occasion wears pants though no ties to the floor, says she does not "audit" Jacobs' clothes closet. "We keep our wardrobes separate."
Rep. Richard Bolling (D-Mo.), who with fellow members of the House Rules Committee would be obliged to vote on any changes in custom, says that male members have come a long way, baby, since he arrived in Congress 30 years ago. Still vivid in his memory is the shock some colleagues expressed when he wore loafers to the floor.
All the returns aren't yet in but the Indiana Hoosier believes he has won an empirical victory anyway. Of 435 members polled, there were 25 nays, 37 ayes and four absentions, "a better sample than Harris usually gets," says Jacobs.
Rep. Morris Udall (D-Ariz.) returned his with an "aye" vote and the notation: "God bless you, Jacobs, you are a true liberator of man." Rep. Millicent Fenwick (R-N.Y.), casting a "nay," added the cryptic comment that male members could not be trusted to use their own judgment on what was "suitable" attire.
"The nation's business," Jacobs says, "is not conducted exclusively by men in coats and ties."
Relentless in his crusade, he will on occasion quote from George Bernard Shaw to press a point.
"You recall 'Don Juan in Hell,'" he says, "where Shaw has him saying. "They are not clean, they are only shaved and starched . . . they are not respectable, they are always fashionably dressed . . .'"