Hoping to lower taxes and improve government services, Melissa Hart entered elective politics at age 28, winning a seat in the Pennsylvania senate. After a decade in state politics, Hart was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2000—the first Republican woman to represent Pennsylvania in Congress. For three terms, Hart worked to limit government regulations on business, restrict access to abortion, and revive the economic prospects of her southwestern Pennsylvania district.
Melissa Ann Hart was born on April 4, 1962, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Donald, a research chemist, and Albina Hart. After her father’s sudden death, Hart and her two siblings worked their way through school to help the family get by.1 Hart graduated from North Allegheny High School and then majored in business and German, earning her bachelor’s degree in 1984 from Washington and Jefferson College in Washington, Pennsylvania. She joined the College Republicans as an undergraduate and worked on a Republican state senate campaign.2 In 1987 she completed her law degree at the University of Pittsburgh and practiced law at a Pittsburgh firm. After Pittsburgh officials raised property taxes, Hart—concerned that “the money being taken from us wasn’t being spent in an effective way”—decided to run for public office.3 In 1990, at age 28, Hart became the youngest woman and the first Republican woman elected to the Pennsylvania state senate.4 Despite hailing from an overwhelmingly Democratic district, she was re-elected twice.5 During her tenure in the state legislature, she chaired the finance committee and focused on tax reform.6 Hart’s chief of staff during her Pennsylvania senate career, Philip Sheridan English, later served alongside her in the U.S. House of Representatives.7
When four-term incumbent Democratic Representative Ronald Klink ran for the U.S. Senate in 2000, Hart entered the race to succeed him in the House. Pennsylvania’s Fourth District overlapped with her state senate district, encompassing parts of six counties spread across southwestern Pennsylvania.8 The district’s industrial past and history of union support usually kept it in Democratic hands.9 No Republican had represented the region since 1979, but Hart’s record in the state senate led to a competitive race.10 Republican House Majority Leader Richard Keith Armey of Texas considered Hart’s candidacy crucial to the party’s effort to retain its 11-seat majority in the House, calling it “the most important congressional race in the country.”11 Armey visited western Pennsylvania to fundraise for Hart, along with Representative Thomas Dale DeLay of Texas and Senator John Sidney McCain III of Arizona.12 Hart’s platform supported cutting taxes and economic development in western Pennsylvania, which had lost jobs amid a shift in the country’s economy away from the industrial backbone of the region.13 She also promised to fight gun control legislation, restrict abortion rights, and eliminate what she considered burdensome business regulations.14 She ran unopposed in the Republican primary and won the general election against her Democratic challenger, a state representative, with 60 percent of the vote. In her subsequent two re-election campaigns, Hart won by similarly comfortable margins.15
Only days after her election in November 2000, Republican leaders chose Hart to respond to President William J. (Bill) Clinton’s weekly radio address, a major platform for a Member-elect.16 At the start of the 107th Congress (2001–2003), she was appointed to three prominent committees: Science; Judiciary; and Financial Services. In the 108th Congress (2003–2005), Hart was named to the Republican Whip team and appointed vice chair of the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution.17
Hart felt she could improve the party’s messaging on important issues by joining leadership. In 2003 she campaigned for vice chair of the Republican Conference, hoping to add the perspective of a Republican woman who represented a majority-Democratic district. “I think one of the most important things for a group of legislators to do is to be able to communicate from within with each other, and to be able to unify and to be able to speak as one voice,” she said.18 While Hart lost the race for vice chair, it helped her build important relationships and raised her national profile in the Republican Party.19
Over the course of her career in the U.S. Congress, Representative Hart achieved several significant legislative accomplishments. After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Hart used her seat on the Judiciary Committee to help draft the USA PATRIOT Act.20 In the 108th Congress, Hart sponsored bipartisan legislation to allow banks to accept checks electronically. It became law in 2003.21 She also authored the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, also known as Laci and Conner’s Law.22 The measure requires separate punishment for those guilty of federal violent crimes that harm pregnant women and their unborn children. Hart had helped pass similar legislation at the state level in Pennsylvania, and she worked with Members from states with comparable laws to secure federal legislation in 2004.23
In 2003 Hart pushed Congress to pass the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, designed to prohibit late-term abortion procedures.24 She cosponsored the House version of the bill and also introduced legislation to withhold federal funding from universities that provide their students access to the morning-after birth control pill.25
By her third term, Hart was an increasingly prominent voice among House Republicans. She served as co-chair of the Republican National Convention’s platform committee in 2004. A year later, she was one of six House Republicans chosen by President George W. Bush to help facilitate the Senate confirmation of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.26 In 109th Congress (2005–2007), Hart won a seat on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, with jurisdiction over taxes, Social Security, and Medicare. In addition, she served on the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct during the 109th Congress.
Hart searched for ways to boost the economy in her district, particularly the once-vibrant steel industry. She urged the Bush administration to impose quotas on imported steel and proposed legislation reauthorizing a public-private partnership to pursue research and development to make the domestic steel industry more competitive.27 She also backed legislation to help workers who lost their jobs at Pittsburgh’s major airline hub and offered measures to provide business tax breaks to fund Army Corps of Engineers projects in her district.28
Hart also introduced legislation to assist in the cleanup of old industrial sites, known as “brownfields,” that were prevalent in her district. “People were really interested in that because if their town had a mill and the mill was closed the last thing they wanted to look at every day was a mill—unless it was going to open again,” she said.29 Her bills offered tax advantages for businesses or developers willing to rehabilitate and invest in the mills.30
In 2006 Hart faced a tough re-election. Her well-funded Democratic challenger, Jason Altmire, a former health care advocate and Capitol Hill aide, was part of a wave of Democrats to run and win that year. On election night, as Democrats surged nationally behind voter frustration with the Bush administration, Altmire prevailed with a margin of 52 to 48 percent of the vote.31
In 2008 Hart challenged Altmire in a bid to retake her seat in the House. Despite campaign visits from former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Republican presidential candidate Willard Mitt Romney, Hart garnered just over 44 percent of the vote to Altmire’s nearly 56 percent.32 She went on to work as a political consultant in the Washington, DC, area.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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