In 2014, after four terms in the Virginia general assembly, Barbara Comstock won election to the U.S. House of Representatives from a seat held by her former boss, Representative Frank Rudolph Wolf of Virginia. “In my three state delegate races I knocked on over 10,000 doors each election … because when you’re actually talking to everybody, door-to-door, you honestly know what their top priorities are,” Comstock said. “As a representative and a candidate, I think that’s my best role, the best way of doing things, because you get good ideas from people. You kind of cut through the clutter.”1
Barbara Comstock was born Barbara Jean Burns on June 30, 1959, in Springfield, Massachusetts. Her father, John Ferguson Burns, worked for the Shell Chemical Company, and her mother, Sally Ann Burns, was employed by the local public school system.2 Burns’s family eventually moved to Houston, Texas, and she graduated from Westchester High School in 1977. She graduated cum laude from Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont, in 1981, with a degree in political science. During college, she interned for Democratic Massachusetts Senator Edward Moore (Ted) Kennedy. But “as I went to the hearings,” she remembered, “I realized that I agreed more with the ideas that Orrin Hatch was talking about.”3
In 1982 Burns married her high school sweetheart Elwyn Charles (Chip) Comstock, a computer science teacher in McLean, Virginia, and enrolled at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, DC. They have three children: Dan, Peter, and Caity. Comstock put her law degree on hold after the birth of her two sons. After she completed law school in 1986, she entered private practice as an attorney.
In 1991 Comstock took a job as an aide to Virginia Representative Frank Wolf. Two years later, when several of Wolf’s Fairfax-area constituents suddenly lost their jobs in the White House travel office, the Congressman asked Comstock to investigate. Comstock’s research triggered an inquiry by the House Government Operations Committee into whether civil service positions in the executive branch had been politicized. After Republicans won control of the House in the 1994 midterm elections, Comstock became chief counsel of the newly renamed Committee on Government Reform and Oversight where she continued to investigate the William J. (Bill) Clinton administration.4
In 2000 Comstock left the House to work on George W. Bush’s presidential campaign. After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Comstock became Director of Public Affairs in the United States Justice Department, serving as chief spokesperson for Attorney General John David Ashcroft until 2003.5
Comstock launched her first campaign for public office in 2009 when she won a seat in the Virginia house of delegates from the Fairfax area.6 In the state house, where she served from 2010 through 2014, Comstock focused on legislation affecting the burgeoning technology sector in her northern Virginia district.7
When Representative Frank Wolf announced his retirement in 2013, Comstock entered the race to fill his seat. The district stretched across Northern Virginia from the DC suburbs of McLean and Manassas, and west to the West Virginia border. Comstock captured the Republican nomination in April 2014 and ran on a message of “common-sense conservatism.” She pointed to her legislative record in the Virginia assembly and—after the 2012 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya during Hillary Rodham Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State—highlighted her time investigating the Bill Clinton administration in the 1990s.8 Following a contentious general election campaign, Comstock captured 56 percent of the vote in November against Fairfax County supervisor John W. Foust.9
Comstock entered the 114th Congress (2015–2017) as the only woman in the Virginia delegation. She received seats on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the Science, Space, and Technology Committee. Both assignments were relevant to her Northern Virginia district, which housed several major tech firms and often experienced traffic congestion. She was also appointed chair of the Research and Technology Subcommittee under Science, Space, and Technology. Comstock called the subcommittee gavel an opportunity to pursue “innovation issues that can revolutionize our education, economy, health care, and national security.”10 She also held a seat on the Committee on House Administration.
In her first term, Comstock focused her legislative efforts on the needs of students and young families, including STEM education and tax relief. She voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but also broke with her party to vote against the budget put forward by Republicans in 2015, citing changes to federal employee benefits that were important to the many government workers across her district. She also opposed the Transportation Department funding bill that slashed $75 million for the DC-area public transit system Metro.11
In 2016 Comstock won re-election against Democrat LuAnn Bennett, a real-estate developer and ex-wife of former Congressman James P. Moran, taking 53 percent of the vote; she ran well ahead of Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump in many precincts.12
In her second term, Comstock’s bill to preserve the Claude Moore Colonial Farm, a living history museum with disputed land rights along the George Washington Memorial Parkway, passed unanimously and became law in June 2018.13 From her seat on the Science, Space, and Technology Committee, she pushed through two bills cowritten with Connecticut Representative Elizabeth Esty. Their bill—the Inspiring the Next Space Pioneers, Innovators, Researchers, and Explorers (INSPIRE) Women Act—encouraged more women to enter scientific fields and provided for several new initiatives in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to foster interest in science for students in grades K-12.14 “Too many girls and young women decide not to pursue studies in technical fields … because they look at their teachers and their role models and they see no one who looks like them,” Comstock said before the bill passed the House without objection. The other bill, the Promoting Women in Entrepreneurship Act, helped women in the STEM fields bring their innovations and research to market.15
Comstock also worked on multiple measures dealing with neighborhood safety and the modernization of emergency response centers. She sponsored a bill expanding resources available to anti-gang task forces and another bill expanding federal funding for local fire departments.16 Comstock voted to authorize funding for opioid addiction treatment and she touted the opening of a new veterans center in Loudoun County.17 She also authored legislation doubling the child tax credit, and successfully advocated for its inclusion in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017.18
In the 115th Congress (2017–2019), amid the #MeToo Movement in which women across the country spoke about experiencing sexual harassment and assault, Comstock was part of a bipartisan effort to institute a new workplace rights and responsibilities training program designed to combat sexual harassment on Capitol Hill. Comstock cosponsored resolutions with California Representative Karen Lorraine Jacqueline (Jacky) Speier to launch the new staff and Member training program and end the practice of using public money to settle misconduct settlements. “For the people who can’t fight back, I feel I can. For the person who’s afraid to say it, I can be their voice,” Comstock said.19 Comstock’s later support for the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court surprised some constituents after Kavanaugh was accused of sexual misconduct as a young man.20
In 2018 Comstock faced Democratic state senator Jennifer Wexton in the general election. In a wave election that saw Democrats flip more than 60 seats, Comstock lost to Wexton after taking 44 percent of the vote.21 After leaving the House, Comstock joined a private firm where she helps advise executive branch officials called to testify before Congress.22
1Emmarie Huetteman, “A Job With Democrats, a Home in the G.O.P.,” 7 April 2015, New York Times: A15.
2“Barbara Burns Bride of Elwyn C. Comstock,” 10 October 1982, New York Times: 95.
3Huetteman, “A Job With Democrats, a Home in the G.O.P.”
4Alex Isenstadt, “Clinton Nemesis Returns,” 24 July 2014, Politico, https://www.politico.com/story/2014/07/hillary-bill-clinton-wars-barbara-comstock-virginia-suburbs-109313; Micah Morrison, “Another Agent Speaks Out,” 4 October 1996, Wall Street Journal: A6.
5Michael Hedges, “When GOP Ails, Ex-Houstonian Has Cure,” 13 November 2005, Houston Chronicle: A15.
6Comstock had previously served on the McLean Community Center governing board in McLean, Virginia, from 1993 to 1996 while working as a congressional staffer. See Victoria Ross, “Comstock’s Comfort Zone,” 11 October 2014, McLean Connection, http://www.mcleanconnection.com/news/2014/oct/11/comstocks-comfort-zone/.
7Huetteman, “A Job With Democrats, a Home in the G.O.P.”; Amy Gardner, “Republicans See an Opportunity to Grab More Seats in Va. House,” 25 October 2009, Washington Post: C1.
8Jennifer Rubin, “Comstock Jumps In,” 7 January 2014, Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/right-turn/wp/2014/01/07/comstock-jumps-in/; Antonio Olivo, “Comstock Wins GOP Nod for Virginia’s 10th District,” 27 April 2014, Washington Post: C1.
9Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”
10Almanac of American Politics, 2016 (Arlington, VA: Columbia Books & Information Services, 2015): 1917.
11Almanac of American Politics, 2018 (Arlington, VA: Columbia Books & Information Services, 2017): 1981.
12Jenna Portnoy, “In Trump Era, Comstock Fights for Her Political Life,” 25 September 2016, Washington Post: C1; Jenna Portnoy, “Comstock, Bennett Zero in on Women,” 4 November 2016, Washington Post: B1; “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present”; Stephen J. Farnsworth and Stephen Hanna, “Here’s How Comstock Beat Bennett in Purple Northern Virginia,” 4 December 2016, Washington Post: C4.
13The farm ultimately closed at the end of the year when the National Park Service refused to renew their contract. See H.R. 1397, 115th Cong. (2018); “Rep. Comstock Bill for Land Exchange at Claude Moore Colonial Farm Passes Senate,” 7 June 2018, Fairfax County Times, http://www.fairfaxtimes.com/articles/rep-comstock-bill-for-land-exchange-at-claude-moore-colonial/article_25cfa038-6a83-11e8-8d7f-cf650a6b63b8.html; Brian Trompeter, “Legislative ‘Hail Mary’ Being Sought by Claude Moore ‘Friends’ Group,” 13 August 2018, InsideNOVA, https://www.insidenova.com/news/fairfax/update-legislative-hail-mary-being-sought-by-claude-moore-friends/article_3029a260-9e34-11e8-b31d-4f0a3d60cda3.html.
14Almanac of American Politics, 2018: 1981; Inspiring the Next Space Pioneers, Innovators, Researchers, and Explorers (INSPIRE) Women Act, H.R. 321, 115th Cong. (2017).
15Congressional Record, House, 115th Cong., 1st sess. (10 January 2017): 271; Inspiring the Next Space Pioneers, Innovators, Researchers, and Explorers (INSPIRE) Women Act, PL 115-7, 131 Stat. 13 (2017); Promoting Women in Entrepreneurship Act, PL 115-6, 131 Stat. 11 (2017); “President Trump Signs Into Law Two Esty-Authored Bills to Promote Women in Science,” official website of Representative Elizabeth Esty, press release, 28 February 2017, https://web.archive.org/web/20170325222131/https://esty.house.gov/media-center/press-releases/president-trump-signs-law-two-esty-authored-bills-promote-women-science.
16Project Safe Neighborhoods Grant Program Authorization Act of 2018, H.R. 3249, 115th Cong. (2018); United States Fire Administration, AFG, and SAFER Program Reauthorization Act of 2017, H.R. 4661, 115th Cong. (2018).
17“Votes of Virginians In Congress for Week Ending June 22,” 24 June 2018, Richmond Times Dispatch: 5B; “Center Providing Mental Health Services to Vets, Active Duty Military Opens in Leesburg,” 12 February 2018, WJLA, https://wjla.com/news/local/center-providing-mental-health-services-to-vets-active-duty-military-opens-in-leesburg.
18Mike DeBonis and Damian Paletta, “House Passes Tax Bill, Upping Heat on Senate,” 17 November 2017, Washington Post: A14; To amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to increase the child tax credit, H.R. 4846, 114th Cong. (2016); To amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to increase the child tax credit, H.R. 3833, 115th Cong. (2017); An Act to provide for reconciliation pursuant to titles II and V of the concurrent resolution on the budget for fiscal year 2018, H.R. 1, 115th Cong. (2017).
19Jenna Portnoy, “Comstock Stands Up For Victims of Sexual Harassment: ‘I Can Be Their Voice,’” 28 November 2017, Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/virginia-politics/comstock-stands-up-for-victims-of-sexual-harassment-i-can-be-their-voice/2017/11/28/c4c64cb4-d45b-11e7-a986-d0a9770d9a3e_story.html; H. Res. 630, 115th Cong. (2017).
20Jenna Portnoy, “In a Northern Va. Swing District, Will Trump Be Enough for Democrats to Unseat Rep. Comstock?,” 1 November 2018, Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/virginia-politics/in-a-northern-va-swing-district-will-trump-be-enough-for-democrats-to-unseat-rep-comstock/2018/11/01/6d5e0cfe-d177-11e8-83d6-291fcead2ab1_story.html.
21Jenna Portnoy and Emily Guskin, “Polls Finds a Challenging Reelection Contest for Rep. Comstock,” 26 October 2018, Washington Post: B1; Jenna Portnoy, “State Sen. Wexton is Latest to Join Raft of Challengers for Comstock’s Seat,” 21 April 2017, Washington Post: B4; Michael Tackett, “In Diverse Virginia District, Ties to Trump Test a Dutiful Incumbent,” 4 July 2018, New York Times: A19; Jenna Portnoy, “A Changing County Holds the Key,” 26 September 2018, Washington Post: B1; “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”
22Philip Wegmann, “Barbara Comstock Returns to the Swamp,” 31 January 2019, Washington Examiner, https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/barbara-comstock-returns-to-the-swamp.