Congresswoman Melissa Hart walks into a bar and the bartender says, "Congresswoman, why the long face?"
OK, that's a recycled John Kerry horse-face joke. But if Melissa does have a long face, it could be because some say she isn't fit to lead a possible ethics inquiry into the alleged shenanigans of Tom DeLay, the Texas representative and Republican leader in the House.
Why would Missy Hart be unfit? "You cannot be the judge or jury of someone with whom you have financial ties, you just can't," rants Melanie Sloan of the Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington.
Hart has accepted $15,000 from DeLay's political action committee, the Americans for a Republican Majority. Hart also held a fund-raiser at a Washington, D.C., restaurant called Signature's owned by Jack Abramoff, a controversial lobbyist and former DeLay chief of staff. Abramoff is being investigated by a federal grand jury and the IRS, among others, on matters including allegedly bilking Indian tribes out of millions of dollars while representing them on casino issues. DeLay is being scrutinized for taking trips paid for by lobbyists, including Abramoff. And another grand jury investigation, this one involving illegal funneling of cash to candidates for the Texas legislature, could expand to DeLay.
But let's get back to Missy. Her press guy, Lee Cohen, told me they aren't allowed to comment on ethics committee matters, but Hart did tell USA Today there's no problem here. "That's just normal" for political leaders to make campaign contributions, she said.
And a Hart aide told the Post-Gazette "there was nothing sinister, everything was above board," with the fund-raiser at Abramoff's restaurant.
Maybe Hart just held the fund-raiser at the Abramoff restaurant because it's a good location. But it's undeniable that doing so creates the appearance of a conflict of interest, and unbelievable that Hart doesn't think accepting PAC money from DeLay doesn't disqualify her from a potential inquiry. And though it might be normal for DeLay to spread the wealth, "The Hammer" would demand loyalty in return. That's just normal too.
Two other Republican representatives and Ethics Committee members have already recused themselves from any investigation of DeLay. Why? They both contributed money to DeLay's legal defense fund. Concern about the appearance of impropriety may force Melissa's hand as well. She could eventually wake up and consume the perception-is-reality java.
But her initial resistance to doing so is classic Melissa. She can jump on her high horse at the drop of a hat. After a career in the state Senate, where she was something of a rebel, detractors say she has become a suck-up's suck-up in Washington.
It's amazing how often she ends up putting herself in position to be on camera when some other GOP hotshot is holding a news conference. At the last State of the Union address, I swear to God I saw her fly across a long row of seats in the House chambers in a frantic attempt to shake Dubya's hand on camera post-speech, only to be thwarted when he turned his back to shake someone else's hand. But she gets an A for effort.
Some local Republicans will tell you Hart's got "Washington-itis," that she's a bit full of herself since she started flying around on Air Force One with the Veep and the Prez. There's a story about DeLay speaking at a fund-raiser for Western PA Republican Congressman Tim Murphy, during which Hart bursts through the door unannounced and uninvited, makes her way to the dais and says a few words. Murphy was reportedly annoyed at the grandstanding.
On the other hand, being an apple-polishing teacher's pet may reap dividends for this region. And despite her occasional sanctimony, I haven't heard anyone say she's dirty or corrupt.
But ethics watchdog Sloan thinks it's curious that a third-term Congresswoman without a ton of power or experience would lead this kind of an inquiry. "Obviously they know her. They vetted her very carefully. It's a dangerous path she's taking. If DeLay manages to stay and she helps him do that, she's golden. But if he goes down and she is seen as someone who was willing to overlook his unethical behavior, her reputation will suffer."
You could have a long career ahead of you, Missy. Wake up and smell the java.