A group of lawmakers approved of a dress code for the state House on Thursday in a party-line vote with Republican support and Democratic opposition.
GOP members of the House Rules Committee argued the dress code was necessary to show respect for the House chamber and their positions as state representatives.
Democrats said the resolution creates a lack of clarity and that the Speaker of the House is already able to address decorum issues.
A longtime Democratic legislator also said issues of conduct go beyond dress and weren't addressed in House Resolution 5, brought by Rep. Barry Usher, a Republican from rural Musselshell and Yellowstone counties.
The issue came to a head after Rep. Mark Noland, R-Bigfork, objected to another member of the House not wearing a necktie earlier this session. Speaker of the House Wylie Galt, R-Martinsdale, tasked the House Rules Committee with addressing the question about dress and decorum.
"Our attire is of critical importance that we show the respect and the dignity of the chamber that we are in," Noland told the committee Thursday. He said the resolution was not mean to be mean-spirited, but was about "the dignity and the respect that I feel we should show each other, but also the entire state of Montana."
HR 5 defines professional attire as men dressed in a suit, or dress slacks, jacket and tie, and appropriate dress shoes or dress boots. For women, it's a suit, or dress slacks, skirt, jacket and dress blouse or suit-like dress, and appropriate dress shoes or dress boots.
Sandals, flip flops and tennis shoes are not considered appropriate. Also not allowed are jeans or denim material clothing, including colored denim material, fleece material or jersey or sweatshirt material.
Democrats pressed Usher for specifics, such as defining a "suit-like dress" for women, if sweaters would be allowed or if logos could push ties into an unprofessional territory. Others pointed out that the Speaker can already enforce decorum violations.
"After reading this and listening to the hearing and the questions and responses, I think functionally we're not in a different place than we were a week ago and it's kind of frustrating that we've gone through all this," said Rep. Kim Abbott, a Helena Democrat and minority leader. "I think it's still up to the Speaker, ultimately, to decide issues of decorum and mostly nothing's changed whether we pass this or not."
Last week the committee debated using a dress code proposed in 2015 that was never adopted because of concerns it was sexist in dictating skirt lengths and necklines for women. That segment of the old rules was not included in HR 5.
Usher said he felt the proposal gave guidelines but left discretion to the Speaker.
"For the institution and keeping the integrity of this institution and the historical nature and reverence of this body, I hope that we can pass this through," Usher said. "Again (we) rely on discretion of the speaker and the future leadership, and put this to bed and move forward so we can get onto other work."
The resolution tasks the House Sergeant-at-Arms with enforcing the policy and authorizes the sergeant to bar members not complying from physically or electronically entering the House chamber or committee rooms.
It also says House leadership is ultimately responsible for ensuring members are dressed in professional business attire.
While Usher said that the resolution wouldn't block a member from participating because they could vote through a proxy on a second reading in the House or not show their image over a remote-participation platform like Zoom, which would mean it would be impossible to know if someone was following the dress code, Rep. Jim Hamilton, D-Bozeman, raised concerns about that provision of the resolution.
Rep. Sharon Stewart Peregoy, D-Crow Agency, said decorum and conduct aren't just about clothing.
"It's not only dress, but it's behavior. You can you can dress to the T, but you can be nasty in terms of how you interact with people. Whether or not you realize it, it's your body language, because that's part of communication, how you approach people, but also how you react to people," Stewart Peregoy said. "I think that's all part and parcel of it. When we talked about behavior, that that's all part of it, and dress is just only one part. ... There's times that we've been walking on a thin line, on thin ice, in terms of how we behave to each other."