For Members of Congress, Traditional Lapel Pin Serves as More Than Just a Form of Identification
Unique Symbol a Common Bond in the House
What’s a surefire way to identify Members of the House amid the swarm of faces on Capitol Hill? Look at their lapel.
With each new Congress comes a new Congressional pin, and the pins are unique in that there are only 435 made — one for each Member of the House.
“We might have our differences, but the one similarity that we share is that we’ve all got the same pin,” said Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio). As House Administration chairman since 2001, when he replaced Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), Ney is responsible for choosing the Congressional pin design.
“When I first got elected, someone came up to me and said, ‘Oh, I love that pin you’re wearing, how do I get one?’” said Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.). “I said, ‘It’ll cost you about $1 million to get elected to Congress, and then you’ll get one.’”
The “painstaking” process of choosing the pin’s design usually takes about six months. Ney said it takes time to mold and develop prototypes, and he tries to choose a design that Members are going to want to wear on their clothing every day.
“It’s a process that we take very seriously,” Ney said of choosing the design, which he has done for both the 108th and 109th Congress. “It’s kind of a big deal, you want to make sure you get it right the best you can.”
However, pleasing your fellow 434 Members isn’t so easy, as Ney found out with his first shot at picking the design. For the 108th Congress he chose a red, white and blue pin for the first time in House history, because “we came off 9/11 in 2001 and I think the Congress and staff went through a lot of traumas. We felt red, white and blue was a patriotic pin to have.”
Patriotic or not, Ney said the design “had a lot of controversy to it.” Farr said he remembers some talk of the former pin looking “like a pin to get into Disneyland.” But this time around, with a more traditional blue and gold design, Ney said the selection has received compliments.
“I think it’s stunning,” Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) said of the latest pin. “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. This year’s pin is much more attractive.”
While the pin’s design is ultimately up to Ney, he consults many others in the process, including House Clerk Jeff Trandahl, House Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Livingood and a handful of Members.
V.H. Blackinton & Co. Inc., a Massachusetts-based company, is responsible for producing the pins. Some prototypes are sent to Ney early on, and he “rules out what obviously isn’t going to be liked” and narrows down the choices from there.
“I privately screen them with a few Members,” Ney said. “If you screened the pins with 435 Members, you would end up with 435 different pins.”
Ney said he has seen pin designs on file from about 10 or 15 years ago, but he’s not sure how long pins have been handed out to Members.
The rarity of the Congressional pin is what makes it meaningful to those who receive one. As a freshman Member, Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) said he thinks the design is appropriate, but he, “like all other new Members, is simply happy to have a pin.”
Farr said the pin is one of the few symbols that come along with being a Member of Congress.
“When you think of what some of your memories are, your physical evidence of being a Member is that pin — something that can be displayed,” Farr said. “It’s a token symbolic of their public service. Whether they wear them or not, they’re proud to be entitled to have one.”
Members are not required to wear the pins, but Ney said he highly advises they do so because the pin is an easy way for the Capitol Police to identify them around Capitol Hill. Also, the pin allows Members to “fast-track through security.”
However, not all Representatives are seen sporting their pin every day.
“I’m not a big pin-wearer, I don’t like to damage the suits, really,” Foley said. “They’re all in my keepsake drawer — you obviously save them because they’re memorabilia.”
Foley, who thinks the pins are a bit too big and would prefer something more “discreet,” said it is helpful for freshman Members to wear the pins while security and others on the Hill learn their faces.
“The first day especially was a bit difficult,” McHenry said about getting through security. The pin “is highly helpful in enabling the Capitol Police to recognize me, which helps me move around much easier on the Hill.”
In addition to the pins helping veteran Members recognize the freshmen, McHenry pointed out that it’s also beneficial to the newcomers if all Members are wearing pins.
“I enjoy meeting my colleagues, and it’s helpful to me to pick out other Members as well so I can introduce myself,” McHenry said.
While Farr said he thinks the majority of Members wear the pins, he wears his only when he remembers or when he needs it for special events.
“I’ve always referred to them as ‘ego pins,’” Farr said. “It makes lobbyists feel good because they can pretend like they know everyone, and the Members feel good because they feel people know who they are.”
Back in the 104th Congress, Foley said he thought he had lost his pin and he put in for a replacement. He ended up finding the original and then had both pins made into cufflinks. Ultimately, Foley said he might have his pins mounted and put in a display cabinet.
Ney has a different plan for his Congressional pins.
“I have taken [my pins] and my voting cards and I put them in a safety deposit box,” said Ney, who now is on his sixth pin. “I’m leaving them for my kids, they can alternate, one can have one year and one can have the next.”
In addition to the Congressional pin, those Members who are married also receive a spouse’s pin, which is the same design but features a different background color. This year’s spouse’s pin has a red background.
“My wife never uses hers — she’s not in Washington,” Farr said. “I’m sure they’re all in a drawer with jewelry though.”
While Farr said the Congressional pins are “more of a Washington thing than something that’s known around the country,” he does acknowledge that it is a privilege to have one — or in his case, seven.
“There are only 435 people that can wear them, and I think it’s a real honor to be able to wear that pin,” Ney said. “You kind of identify with your pin, it’s a unique thing.”