Capitol Police vs. Fashion Police

Do congressmen wear their official pins?

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The U.S. Capitol Police referred the case of Rep. Cynthia McKinney to the Department of Justice on Monday. The congresswoman allegedly struck an officer last week after he stopped her and requested her credentials. McKinney called the incident racial profiling and said the officers should recognize members of the House even if they’re not wearing their official lapel pins: “It is true that at the time I was not wearing my pin. But many Members of Congress aren’t wearing their pins today.” How many members of Congress actually wear their official pins?

Most of them do—at least in the House. With 435 representatives walking around, it can be hard for staffers, lobbyists, and police officers to remember who’s who. Even the members themselves sometimes rely on the pins to identify their colleagues. Each election cycle brings 30 or 40 (or even 87) new faces to the floor, and the pins help the veterans and the freshmen to get acquainted. The official Senate pin isn’t as popular, since there’s less turnover and fewer people to keep track of.

Each chamber has its own pin, and the designs change from year to year. In the House, the chair of the Administration Committee gets to choose the pin. * Some designs are more popular than others: Rep. Mark Foley told Roll Call he thought the newest design was “stunning. I didn’t think much of the last pin and I didn’t wear it often—it looked like it was trying to accomplish too much.”

You don’t have to wear your pin, but it’s the best way to get past the security lines if the guards don’t know your face. In the Roll Call article, Foley declared himself “not a big pin-wearer, I don’t like to damage the suits.” Cynthia McKinney has refused to wear her pin for more than 10 years.

When a member of the House retires—like Tom DeLay just did—he gets to keep his old pins but won’t get any of the new designs. That doesn’t mean DeLay will lose his access privileges. Under current rules, DeLay will get a special “former member of Congress” pin that he can use indefinitely. The representatives’ spouses also get pins (of a different color).

Non-congressmen use one badge to get through security and another for floor access. The most recognizable senior staffers can slip past guards without their badges, just as many lawmakers get by without wearing their pins.

It’s a fashion no-no to wear your badge when you leave the Capitol grounds—only a summer intern would do that. Pins, on the other hand, can be left on at all times. (The sergeant-at-arms does tell lawmakers not to wear their pins around town when there’s a high risk of terrorist attacks.) In 2003, Rep. Mike Ferguson wore his pin to the Rhino Bar and Pumphouse in Georgetown. A few hours later, the pin ended up in the hands of college junior Michelle Mezoe. He says she stole it; she says he tried to use it to pick her up. She only returned the pin after Ferguson called the police.

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Explainer thanks reader Mary Kay McCune for asking the question.

* Correction, April 6, 2006: This piece originally identified Rep. Bob Ney as the chair of the House Administration Committee. Ney stepped down in January and was replaced by Rep. Vernon Ehlers. Click here to return to the corrected sentence.