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U.S. House freshman from Florida takes on the hat rule

Frederica Wilson was known as the Florida state legislator whose trademark was her ever-present fancy hats. But when the Democrat was elected to South Florida's 17th District in Congress on Nov. 2, her fashion statement ran afoul of the rules.

We learned of Wilson's hat woes from a posting in Naked Politics, a Miami Herald blog:

"Wilson is hoping to have a conversation with the likely new speaker, John Boehner. At issue: whether or not the longtime lawmaker can wear her signature hats on the House floor. The House bars members from wearing hats while the body is in session, but Wilson said she believes the speaker can waive the rule, which dates to the 1800s.''

'"It's sexist," Wilson said. "It dates back to when men wore hats and we know that men don't wear hats indoors, but women wear hats indoors. Hats are what I wear. People get excited when they see the hats. Once you get accustomed to it, it's just me."'

Roll Call also wrote about Wilson's hat dilemma on Nov. 4: "But while we expect Wilson to become the Hill's newest fashionista — for better or worse, depending on who you ask — she likely will have to ditch her trademark headpieces while she's on the House floor. Although there isn't a specific dress code, hats have been banned on the floor since September 1837."

The Truth-O-Meter was curiously scratching its head. Was Wilson correct ? Did the rule banning members from wearing hats on the House floor date to the 1800s? And who can waive the rule?

First, a little more colorful background about Wilson and her hats that we gleaned from a May 11, 2009, St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald article:

"In a political universe dominated by men in dark suits, ... Wilson is the rainbow that cannot be ignored. She walks the halls of the Capitol flashing her custom-made, bedazzled cowboy hats and perfectly matched suits — her own runway of eye-popping colors that are more suited to the Miami district she represents than to good ol' boy Tallahassee. Canary yellow. Five-carat turquoise. Cotton-candy pink. Cherry red. … The loud wardrobe of the educator-turned-Democratic lawmaker sends a clear if unspoken message to fellow lawmakers: I am here. And attention will be paid."

We called Wilson and asked how many hats she owns.

"Hundreds,'' she said. "I've never counted, but I've been wearing them almost 30 years."

Wilson said she brought six hats to Washington, D.C., has been researching the rules about hat wearing and still hopes to speak to Boehner about the ban. Wilson said she would get back to us regarding her research on the ban and who she believes can waive it, but we didn't hear back.

Under the category "comportment,'' the rules of the current Congress state: "During the session of the House, a Member, Delegate, or Resident Commissioner may not wear a hat or remain by the Clerk's desk during the call of the roll or the counting of ballots. A person may not smoke or use a wireless telephone or personal computer on the floor of the House. The Sergeant-at-Arms is charged with the strict enforcement of this clause."

We consulted Miami Herald reporter Lesley Clark, who covers Congress. Clark obtained a copy of historic documents kept by the House and also forwarded to us a 2009 copy of the Constitution, Jefferson's Manual, and Rules of the House of Representatives. It states: "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. Scob. 6. In 1837 the parliamentary practice of wearing hats during the session was abolished.''

A document from 1907 sheds more light. "Hinds' precedents of the House of Representatives of the United States" written by Asher Hinds, clerk to the speaker, says the hat rule was "the fruit of considerable agitation. In early years, following the custom of Parliament, Members wore their hats during session."

That practice was challenged when Charles F. Mercer of Virginia proposed a rule "as early as March 13, 1822: 'Nor shall any Member remain in the hall covered during the session of the House.' Mercer's proposal wasn't adopted, and other members proposed bans during the next several years. A ban proposed in 1833 was rejected because 'Members would have no places in which to put their hats if they should not wear them, and also that the custom of wearing hats was a sign of independence of the Commons of England, and therefore a good usage to preserve the American House.' "

A record of historical highlights from the House also provides a short summary of the history of the hat ban. It states that member John M. Patton of Virginia defended "the really harmless but apparently indecorous practice of wearing our hats … Regarding then this usage as merely 'the outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual' freedom of this body from all executive control or interference, let us preserve it. And whenever, if ever, our executive magistrates shall attempt to employ any improper influence on this body, let us be found with our hats on."

But on Sept. 14, 1837, the House adopted the rule banning members from wearing hats during the session or by the clerk's table during the call of the roll. So Wilson is correct that the House ban dates to the 1800s.

But can the House speaker waive the rule?

We turned to the House Practice, Assembly of Congress (Chapter 5). It says the House can adopt its own procedural rules, and "ordinarily the House adopts the rules of the prior Congress but with various amendments." So it appears that the House could adopt a new rule, say, allowing all hats or dress hats. But this doesn't address whether a leader can waive a rule.

We asked House rules committee Vincent Morris. "Current Rules prohibit hat wearing so anyone showing up with a hat would likely be told to take it off,'' he wrote in an e-mail. "For the Rules to change, members would need to approve revisions when the next Congress starts in January." An aside: We're told the hat ban does not apply to religious head coverings, so it would not bar Jews from wearing yarmulke or Muslim women from wearing the hijab or head scarf.

So Wilson is right about the ban originating in the 1800s — Sept. 14, 1837, to be precise. But there's no indication that Boehner can "waive" the rule. It appears that the House would have to vote on a new rule. If Wilson's research finds evidence to the contrary, or if Boehner responds with evidence that he has that power, we could revisit this topic. But for now, we rate her claim Half True.

The statement

The U.S. House rule barring members from wearing hats while in session dates back to the 1800s and can be waived by the speaker.

Frederica Wilson, Nov. 17, 2010, in an interview for a Miami Herald blog

The ruling

Wilson is correct that the ban on House members wearing hats started in the 1800s —- Sept. 14, 1837, to be precise. But can the speaker "waive" the rule? It appears that the House would have to vote on a new rule. If Wilson's research finds evidence to the contrary, or if Speaker John Boehner responds with evidence that he has that power, we could revisit this topic. But for now, we rate this claim Half True.

U.S. House freshman from Florida takes on the hat rule 11/28/10 [Last modified: Sunday, November 28, 2010 9:16pm]

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