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A Rabbit Hole Investigation: Did Sen. Richard Burr cast an official Senate vote in shorts?
The U.S. Senate got rid of its unofficial dress code, and people are sort of upset about it! But did North Carolina's once-senior senator break the code to conduct official business? We investigate.
There are lot of Important Politics Things happening right now. Too many, even. Dropping them all here would be like, I don’t know, releasing a 1,400 page state budget plan to the public for the first time less than 24 hours before a vote.
I digress. If anything out there feels important to you, I encourage you leave now and go inform yourself. Because we’re gonna talk about the most tedious thing ever: SEMI-OFFICIAL LEGISLATIVE WARDROBE DECORUM.
One note before we get going here: If you’re new to the Rabbit Hole, you’re going to read this (or at least part of this) and then complain about how much time you just wasted. In fact, even if you do like this newsletter, you might think this is a bit much. Politics have real-world consequences, and viewing them as some sort of game with winners or losers cheapens a process that can affect peoples’ lives. However! There’s another, real side of politics that is quite absurdist, whose logic seems to come directly from first-grade recess. Put another way: Politics is a sport, and if you treat the whole Washington D.C. establishment in the same manner as, say, the Big Ten Conference, the controversies, speeches, and storylines start to make more sense. I’ll let you figure out which political party is the Ohio State football team and which one’s Michigan.
With that, let’s get going.
To start, here is current U.S. Senator John Fetterman of Pennsylvania in an official photograph from his time as Lt. Governor of that state.
Fetterman is 6-foot-8, tattooed, and loves wearing baggy shorts and Carhartt hooded sweatshirts. His vibe is very Linkin Park. He is, like me, from the midwestern Hoodie Belt. I get it. I’d wear hoodie everywhere if I could.
Which, now, he can. The U.S. Senate is a weird, arcane place, full of long-standing rules that nobody seems to have written down. It’s sort of like baseball except without the charm or the pitch clock. In any event, one of those unwritten rules was that senators have to dress in “business casual” attire, and the men have to wear a coat and tie in the chamber.
Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.) accused Democrats of trying to “transform America, to take us to a place that is much less respectful than we historically have been.”
Bold words by the senator from Long Carolina. He’s not the only one talking. Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, threatened to wear a bikini on the floor. Democratic senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island hoped there would be no loincloths. And then, there’s Mitt:
“Do you think judges should wear shorts and T-shirts when they’re sitting on the stand?,” asked [Utah Republican Sen. Mitt] Romney, who recently announced his retirement at the end of this term. “No, because we want to show respect for the institution of the judiciary. Likewise, this is the government of the United States of America.”
Yeah man, it’s not like anyone would conduct an entire session of court without pants on underneath their robe.
Anyhow, during this whole discourse, I was teetering on the edge of my seat, wondering if anyone was going to invoke the name of Senatorial Fashion Beetlejuice. And lo, it happened:
[Nevada Democratic senator Jacky] Rosen pushed back against pinning the blame on Fetterman, pointing to former Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who famously claimed to wear shoes with no socks.
Folks, everyone took the Burr bait. The New York Times mentioned his name. So did CNN and NPR. Most everyone mentioned the most famous Burrism: His noted aversion to wearing socks (more on this in a moment). But I don’t know. Socks? Sort of a minor fashion accoutrement if you ask me. I, for one, did not put socks on this week to perform the Sacred Parental Duty of running the kids through the school drop-off line. Nobody gave me any grief. Probably because I was blasting Kidz Bop.
Still, socks are socks. But Burr may have been guilty of a much larger breach:
So here we go with a new Rabbit Hole investigation: Did Richard Burr, the longtime senator from North Carolina, once break senate rules to cast an official senate vote in shorts?
We have obtained video evidence. In a little bit, we’ll go to the replay.
The Man, The Myth, The Bare Ankles
First up, Richard Burr’s record over 28 years in Congress (10 as a representative, 18 as a senator) was fairly run-of-the-mill Republican. At the very end it got sort-of interesting. He was accused of, and then cleared of, insider trading. One of his most significant votes in office was to convict President Trump after his second impeachment trial in 2021.
But it was during the first impeachment trial, when people scrutinizing every tiny mannerisms of senators, that people nationwide really became aware of the sock thing. This sketch of Burr from the proceedings led to a whole news cycle.
Yeah, Burr’s been directly asked about this, like, a million times. In 2016, he told WXII-TV that he’s not opposed to socks (Hanesbrands is headquartered in his hometown of Winston-Salem), but prefers not to wear them. “It’s a Southern thing. It’s a cultural thing,” he said. In 2018, the Wilmington Star-News did a trend story about southeastern North Carolina politicians who went sockless. As part of it, they interviewed the anti-sock alpha himself. Burr repeated what he’d said before: He didn’t really put them on as a kid and didn’t like to wear them in any weather (He went sockless during Joe Biden’s 42-degree inauguration in 2021). He did admit to wearing them more often—on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and at church—but said he’d stopped getting weird looks about his bare ankles. That’s probably because visitors were briefed about the sock thing, including the royal family of Bahrain. “I didn't have socks on and neither of them flinched,” Burr told the Star-News. “But here's the thing: neither of them were wearing socks either.”
I can’t honestly tell if the no sock thing is a bonafide genteel Southern tradition, but it did once have a practical use for Burr. In 2008, there was buzz that presidential candidate John McCain might select Burr as his running mate. In February 2008, Burr told a luncheon crowd in Raleigh that he was trying to follow electioneering rules while campaigning for McCain in New Hampshire. Those rules said he wasn’t supposed to talk to voters unless they talked to him first. From the News & Observer:
And that’s why, Burr said, tongue in cheek, he wore no socks. People all over New Hampshire came up to him during the January primary.
“They’d say, ‘Are you crazy? You’re not wearing any socks!’” he said.
He’d then tell voters he was campaigning for McCain, which got around the rule.
That seems to be the earliest mention of the no socks thing, although Burr hasn’t really gone out of his way to talk to reporters about it because he largely hates talking to reporters. He once climbed out of his Capitol Hill office window while holding his dry cleaning to avoid the media.
This is not the only weird part of Burr’s bio. There’s the official part: Son of a minister. Football player at Wake Forest University. One-time appliance salesman. He looks like you’d expect a country club-bred Republican to look.
But he also, proudly, drove a crumbling 1974 Volkswagen Thing around Capitol Hill. What the hell is a Volkswagen Thing, you ask? Well, uh, it’s this:
Basically, it’s the German version of a Jeep, and it was only sold in the United States for two years, making it a collector’s item of sorts. In the early 1990s, Burr bought two for his sons, who refused to drive them. So Burr kept one and kept driving it around Washington, D.C. The windshield was cracked. It had holes in the floor and a busted muffler. The doors would swing open sometimes during a turn. Once, the brakes went out and Burr rear-ended an SUV driven by an investigative reporter for NBC News. The Thing was covered with bumper stickers. Women got placement on the front bumper. Everyone else got space on the back, provided they made a small campaign donation. Burr said he only had to refuel it three times a year, and he never wore seat belts while driving it. “If I hit something in this car, I want to be thrown as far away from it as possible because, see, the engine is right here,” he told Roll Call in 2013.
The Big Short
It should come as no surprise that a man who wears no socks, gets shirts from Costco, and drives a crusty obscure vehicle around D.C. would be the guy who’d show up in the U.S. Capitol wearing shorts. But, um, did he once wear them on the Senate floor? And did he break the rules of capitol couture and cast a vote in them?
This tweet (and the one above) came from a congressional reporter for Bloomberg back on June 11, 2018. I cannot stress to you enough: These tweets did not make any waves whatsoever. This was a mere ripple compared to the Obama Tan Suit Tidal Wave of 2014.
But, again, if you’re going by the letter of the (unwritten) law, a senator has to wear a coat and tie to go on to the senate floor and cast a vote. Burr’s got the coat but no tie, and the shorts are a bit too casual for the “business casual” rule. And yet, Burr voted. It wasn’t the most important vote in the world. But still, he voted. How?
Just like with the New Hampshire sock thing, he knew how to bend the rules.
First up, here’s a C-Span screengrab from the Senate floor session on June 11, 2018:
I watched this session so you don’t have to. Basically, senators have to give a finger or thumbs-up to vote yes, and a thumb or finger down to vote no. It takes a very long time. The entire senate isn’t there all at once. Members float in and out. Some stick around and chat. A few talk to the senate pages. Many of them walk right up to the dais to give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. Others make eye contact and vote from further back. After each vote, the clerk calls out their name and their choice.
But go back and look at the picture above. Specifically, the top right corner. You’ll notice a man in the doorway with his finger up. That’s Richard Burr, voting yes. Here’s what that looked like, in close-up GIF form:
Right after this, the clerk called out “Mr. Burr. Aye.” That was it. Burr was there and gone within seconds. The vote was recorded.
The video is grainy, but it sure does look like Burr’s khakis end somewhere around the knee. If I were a referee, I’d definitely confirm the vote. And the shorts.
So, was Burr on the senate floor, as required? And was he violating the dress code while doing it?
In the Senate, the only workaround to the dress code has been an exception made for votes, when senators are allowed to place one foot on the floor from an adjacent cloakroom and signal “yea” or “nay” without fully entering the chamber.
Burr’s clearly visible in the doorway so he can vote. But he never goes fully into the chamber.
It’s not clear if he was the first senator to take advantage of this. He wasn’t the last. In 2021, Ted Cruz showed up for a vote in full athletic gear, mentioning that the senate had scheduled a vote in the middle of his basketball game.
I watched the tape on this one too. He doesn’t show up on camera, so it’s not clear if he actually did come onto the senate floor. But he voted from the back and not from the dais; a senate staffer is getting the clerk to look at the back of the chamber before his name is called.
Since his release from the hospital after treatment for clinical depression, John Fetterman has voted from doorways after opting out of suits (which he hates) and getting back into the hoodies and shorts that make him more comfortable. Earlier this week, he took advantage of the new dress code and presided over the senate in shorts and a short sleeve shirt. Maybe it’s a big deal. Maybe it’s not. In any event, recall the time that Sen. Kyrsten Sinema presided over the senate wearing a pink sweatshirt with the words “Dangerous Creature” on it.
“You’re breaking the internet,” Mitt Romney told her.
“Good,” she replied.
Just like the NFL, the congressional rulebook gets updated every once in a while. And every time it comes to weird senate fashion (or parking spaces for Volkswagen Things), the press is going to be unable to resist bringing up Richard Burr. Of course, his fellow senators also can’t resist throwing him under the bus. Just last week, an excerpt from a potentially explosive new biography of Mitt Romney went out of its way to throw a weird flex on Burr:
As the weeks passed, Romney became fascinated by the strange social ecosystem that governed the Senate. He spent his mornings in the Senate gym studying his colleagues like he was an anthropologist, jotting down his observations in his journal. Richard Burr walked on the treadmill in his suit pants and loafers.
If politics is sports, it’s important to get your cardio in.