House committee approves dress code

Debate includes skirts, ties, Code of Hammurabi

By: - March 25, 2021 6:57 pm

Rep. Steven Galloway, R-Great Falls, speaks in favor of House dress code rules in the House Rules Committee on March 25, 2021 (Montana Public Access Network).

About the only section of a two-page resolution codifying dress codes in the Montana House that didn’t draw a question or objection was the last line, “BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that there are no casual Fridays or Saturdays.”

No casual Fridays or Saturdays was just part of a bill regarding dress code and decorum in the Montana House that was sponsored by Rep. Barry Usher, R-Billings.

House Resolution 5 passed along party lines out of the Rules Committee. The dress code debate now heads to the House floor.

Rep. Barry Usher, R-Billings, presents House Resolution 5 which would create and codify a set of decorum rules in the House. (Montana Public Access Network)

“I think of it like a baseball team. If you’re a part of the team and you show up in uniform, you’re allowed to play,” Usher said.

Two lawmakers, Rep. Steve Galloway, R-Great Falls, and Rep. Mark Noland, R-Bigfork, testified on behalf of the bill.

“The state of Montana and the citizens need to see us in respectful attire,” Noland said. “From my simple mind, we need to have this at the forefront because when we are dressed professionally, it helps how we act and in our attitudes. We’ve always done this. It’s not a new thing.”

Thursday’s rules committee hearing came after a prior discussion about dress codes and decorum. The issue came to a head earlier in the Legislative session when Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, who is the chairman of the rules committee, walked out on fellow legislator Rep. Danny Tenenbaum, D-Missoula, who was not wearing a tie.

That action spurred a debate on the decorum and dress code, and what could be done to a lawmaker who didn’t comply.

What to do came in the form of Usher’s resolution, which had complete Republican support.

Usher faced a salvo of fashion-related queries from Democrats wondering about the definitions within the bill.

Concerns had been raised about barring legislators who don’t comply with the dress code from voting, something that is guaranteed by law.

However, Usher pointed out that members can vote electronically or by proxy.

Rep. Jim Hamilton, D-Bozeman, pointed out that the text of the bill allowed for the lawmaker to be denied entry to House, both physically and electronically.

Rep. Laurie Bishop, D-Livingston, asked for the definition of “suit-like dress.” As both Usher and Skees struggled to define it, she said the ambiguity in the bill left her uneasy that the rules may be used arbitrarily.

“I’m just trying to find the definition,” Bishop said.

Rep. Laurie Bishop, D-Livingston, asks questions during a House Rules Committee hearing on March 25, 2021. House Minority Leader Kim Abbott is in the background (Montana Public Access Network).

“We’ve already established it: It’s a dress that looks like a suit,” Skees responded.

Usher said the bill was drafted especially with the idea of flexibility and discretion so that it could be applied using reasonable judgment.

“Really, this still is up to the leadership of the House and the Speaker,” Usher said.

Rep. Derek Harvey, D-Butte, argued that since the Speaker of the House, Wylie Galt, R-Martinsdale, already had the power to enforce rules, HR5 was unnecessary.

“We’ve been here for about 60 days, and the Speaker has been assessing decorum and I don’t see why we need this bill at all,” Harvey said. “I trust the Speaker.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Robert Farris-Olsen, D-Helena, wondered if all ties — bolo, bow, traditional or even an ascot — would be encompassed under the definition of “tie.” Furthermore, he wondered if there was any guidance of how it must be worn: Does it need to be tied? What kind of knot? Or could he wear it around his head? Could he wear, for example, a Democratic tie with a donkey on it, or a tie with Sen. Bernie Sanders?

Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, stepped in to answer some of the questions.

“A reasonable person would decide how a tie is supposed to be tied,” he said. “We’re not creating the Code of Hammurabi, we’re giving guidelines.”

Some wondered what would happen if a person had a medical condition, for example, a broken arm or shoulder, and couldn’t tie a tie. Or what about a surgical boot since “sandals, flip flops and tennis shoes” are not allowed by the bill.

Others questioned whether the Legislature, which has also debated a bill specifically prohibiting the state from interfering in personal religious decisions, would make an exception for religious dress, for example a priest in a collar who is not wearing a tie.

“I truly have not thought about that,” Usher said.

Some also worried that the enforcement of the rules would be up to the Sergeant-at-Arms, an employee, not an elected member or the leadership.

“We can never expect everyone in leadership to be posted by the doors monitoring everyone who is coming in,” Usher said.

He pointed out that lawmakers create rules for staff, media, interns, pages and others who do business during the legislative session, so it’s not unreasonable to make rules that apply to the body of 100 legislators.

“Functionally, we’re not in a different place than we were two weeks ago,” said Minority Leader Rep. Kim Abbott, D-Helena. “I think it’s still up to the Speaker and mostly nothing changes whether we pass this or not.”

Some legislators said that they would be more in favor of dress codes and resolutions if the decorum definitions were expanded.

Rep. Sharon Stewart Peregoy, D-Crow Agency, discusses dress codes at a House Rules hearing, March 25, 2021 (Montana Public Access Network)

“It’s about behavior and how we conduct ourselves not only in the chamber, but in the community — your best behavior. You can dress to the ‘T’ and be nasty to other people,” said Rep. Sharon Stewart Peregoy, D-Crow Agency. “Behavior is nine-tenths of decorum. That’s the way it’s always been and will always be. If we want tradition, then let’s follow it in its entirety.”

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.