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The Rules of Congress Are Changing With Its Members

As Congress becomes more diverse, many of its longstanding rules—like a ban on religious headwear—are starting to change.

by Marie Solis
Nov 20 2018, 8:53pm

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Like her fellow newly-elected Congress members, incoming Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar has a lot to do between now and January 3, the first day the 116th Congress will be in session. She has to set up and staff two offices in just 44 days, find an apartment in DC, and generally make sure everything is in place so she's ready to serve her constituents as soon as she's sworn in.

But unlike her fellow electeds, she has one more thing on her to-do list: changing the 181-year-old rule that forbids her from wearing her headscarf to work.

Omar—who became the first Muslim woman ever elected to Congress earlier this month, along with incoming Michigan Representative Rashida Tlaib—is currently working alongside House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and incoming House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern to amend the rule, which specifically bans hats. As part of a larger proposal to overhaul House Rules, the three Democrats plan to create a stipulation within the hat ban that allows for religious headwear.

If the rule goes through, Omar would mark another historic first, becoming the first person ever to wear a headscarf on the House floor.

“There are those kinds of policies that oftentimes get created because people who have blindspots are in positions of influence and positions of power,” Omar told the New York Post last week. “I think it will be really exciting to see the stuff that we notice within the rules that don’t work for a modern-day America.”

The results of the midterm elections mean the 116th Congress will be the most diverse yet, with a record number of women forming its incoming class—many of whom made history as the first women of their kind to be elected to the body. Some say that means the more than 200-year-old institution will have to adjust to accommodate its new members.

"As the nature of the membership changes and so the culture within these institutions is bound to evolve too, reflecting the synthesis of the wonderful traditions of the past and the growth of the nation going forward," Alan Frumin, who was responsible for interpreting the rules of the Senate for 19 years as Senate Parliamentarian, tells Broadly. "If that means changing the rules with respect to how members dress, that’s something that’s probably a good thing."

Earlier this year, the Senate changed one of its longstanding policies as well: In April, senators voted unanimously to change a rule that forbade children from the Senate floor in order to accommodate breastfeeding mothers. Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth was the driving force behind the rule change, which had direct implications for her ability to do her job: Weeks before the change went through, Duckworth became the first senator to give birth while in office. Under the old rules, Duckworth would have had to leave the Senate floor to tend to her newborn daughter, meaning she'd have to renounce her vote, since senators have to be physically present to cast it.

"By ensuring that no Senator will be prevented from performing their constitutional responsibilities simply because they have a young child, the Senate is leading by example and sending the important message that working parents everywhere deserve family-friendly workplace policies," Duckworth said in a statement at the time.

The rule change, Duckworth added, helped "bring the Senate into the 21st Century by recognizing that sometimes new parents also have responsibilities at work."

Jennifer Lawless, a professor of politics at University of Virginia and an expert on women in politics, says bringing both arms of Congress up to date is a matter of ensuring that diverse candidates continue to run for—and win—office.

"The issue here is that the rules don't change until someone needs them to," Lawless says. "The good news is that we now have the kind of diversity that requires these rule changes. It really highlights how archaic some of these rules are and how long it's taken to generate the beginnings of the diversity we would expect from the US Congress."

Lawless believes—as was more or less the case with Duckworth—that Omar won't have too hard a time getting her rule change through. "We're seeing that it's not particularly controversial to change these rules," Lawless continues. "With Duckworth it's just a situation that hasn't occurred to anyone before: When the initial rules of Congress were put into place the notion of anyone other than a white man occupying a position of power was pretty much unheard of."

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Frumin says it's important to keep this context in mind as lawmakers consider how to knit together the past with the present.

"I think it’s a good thing that the two houses of Congress are becoming more diverse," Frumin says. "I think the rules of any legislative body [should] reflect the culture in that body. And the culture to a certain extent is a blend between history—what’s happened in the past—and how the country is developing into the future."