WASHINGTON — It didn't take long for freshman Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah, to make waves on social media upon his arrival in Washington. His first House Judiciary Committee meeting included a speech shared and praised by conservatives — and a stinging rebuttal from Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-New York, that's gone viral on the left.
Owens' comments this week were precipitated by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., who requested the Pledge of Allegiance be recited at the beginning of committee meetings. Committee chair Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-New York, declined, pointing out that the pledge is already recited at the beginning of the day in the House.
Owens spoke in favor of Gaetz's idea, saying he grew up in the segregated South but was still taught to respect the American flag and what it stood for. He said he entered the NFL with a $50,000 bonus at a time when Black players still didn't have opportunities at certain positions, like quarterback. "We have guys making $50 million today, who play any position they want to, who will not stand for the flag because they've been taught by their adults not to love our nation.
"What can we do here, as leaders, guys? Let's put aside the partisanship and appreciate the fact that we have a body here of every color under the rainbow. ... As we have more and more freedom to achieve our dreams, we seem to point more and more at other people for the failures that we have when we make bad decisions."
He encouraged the lawmakers to take "15 seconds" and recite the pledge "to show our kids that we're adults that can agree to disagree, but we love our country enough to at least stand and represent the flag."
Owens' speech was shared by congressional conservatives like Gaetz and Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, all staunch supporters of former President Donald Trump.
"It's pretty pathetic," Owens tweeted later, "not a single Democrat Rep could be bothered to show 15 seconds of unity and patriotism while reciting our pledge of allegiance."
It's pretty pathetic, not a single Democrat Rep could be bothered to show 15 seconds of unity and patriotism while reciting our pledge of allegiance. 15 seconds, that's all @mattgaetz asked for. America deserves better, much better. We owe our constituents more. https://t.co/eTa6KOYu59— Burgess Owens (@BurgessOwens) February 5, 2021
Jeffries took issue with Owens' comments, though, and centered his criticism on the fact that Owens — like Gaetz, Jordan and nearly 140 other GOP representatives — voted to reject electors from some swing states that went to President Joe Biden last year, even after rioters invaded the Capitol to halt the electoral count.
"I was just going to ask (Owens) how he voted after a violent mob attacked the Capitol to hunt down members of Congress, to hang Mike Pence, to assassinate Nancy Pelosi," Jeffries said. He talked about the dozens of officers injured guarding the Capitol that day, including Brian Sicknick, who died.
"And you want to sit here and lecture us about patriotism?" Jeffries continued indignantly. "When you voted to object to an election that you know Joe Biden won, and perpetrated the Big Lie?"
Every Utahn needs to hear this. Particularly every person living in CD 4. And even more specifically, every individual who foolishly voted for @BurgessOwens rather than a remarkable public servant, @BenMcAdamsUT. Burgess Owens will continue to embarrass Utah for 23 months. #utpolhttps://t.co/WO3Yfx8bor— Rep. Brian S. King (@RepBrianKing) February 6, 2021
The Big Lie refers to Trump's false insistence that the election was stolen from him; his campaign lost dozens of court challenges fighting the results after Election Day. Owens said in December there was "no question," in his mind, that Trump won the election, but later said he accepts Biden as president.
"The notion of you coming here and lecturing us on your first day before this committee — 'It's not about words, it's about actions,'" Jeffries said, repeating a line Owens had used. "You know what? Explain your actions on Jan. 7 when you supported an insurrection."
CNN commentator Keith Boykin tweeted a clip of the exchange, and several Utahns weighed in. "Every Utahn needs to hear this," tweeted House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City. "Particularly every person living in CD 4. And even more specifically, every individual who foolishly voted for (Owens) rather than a remarkable public servant, (former Rep. Ben McAdams). Burgess Owens will continue to embarrass Utah for 23 months."
On Friday Owens shared a Frederick Douglass quote posted by conservative website PragerU. "Liberty is meaningless," it says, "where the right to utter one's thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist."
Correction: The previous version incorrectly identified the chair of the House Judiciary Committee as Ralph Nader. That has been updated.