Celebrating Juneteenth

Here is my full column that ran in the Washington County Daily News yesterday.

Proving that nuance and rational discussion is currently disallowed when it comes to debating anything related to race, Senator Ron Johnson stepped into the a hornet’s nest when he offered an amendment to a bill to designate Juneteenth as a federal holiday.

There is currently a bipartisan push to make June 19th, or Juneteenth, a federal holiday. June 19th, 1865, is the day that federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to occupy the state and announce that all enslaved people were free. It is regarded as the date when the news of emancipation reached the last of the remaining slaves in the United States. While it is not the date of the Emancipation Proclamation (January 1, 1863), or the date of ratification of the 13th Amendment (December 6th, 1865), Juneteenth has become the anniversary that we celebrate the end of the evil practice of legal slavery in the United States.

The first question to ask is should we celebrate Juneteenth as a federal holiday? Absolutely. Slavery was the original sin of our nation and we atoned for it with the blood of hundreds of thousands of Americans in a brutal Civil War. Ending slavery was a seminal moment in our nation’s history that brought us closer to the ideals of liberty and equality as beautifully enunciated by Thomas Jefferson in our Declaration of Independence. It is long overdue that we have a formal celebration of the abolition of slavery.

To this end, a bipartisan assemblage of senators drafted a bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. First, we must be clear on what that means. The federal government cannot mandate that Americans celebrate anything. A designated federal holiday simply means that the federal government is giving all non-essential federal employees the day off of work to commemorate the event. Usually, but not always, states and private businesses follow the federal government’s lead. For example, almost everyone gets a days off for Independence Day and Memorial Day, but the same cannot be said for Washington’s Birthday or Columbus Day. The designation of a federal holiday, or lack thereof, has absolutely no bearing on whether or not people choose to celebrate or commemorate an event.

There is, however, a cost associated with the federal government granting a holiday to its employees. That cost is estimated to be about $600 million that the taxpayers have to bear for paying federal employees to not work. In order to save the taxpayers that expense, Senator Johnson offered an amendment to trade Columbus Day for Juneteenth Day. Columbus Day is largely celebrated in the Italian-American community, but overlooked by most other Americans.

Johnson’s amendment set off a firestorm of criticism from the political Right accusing him of surrendering to the radical Left. And the political Left lambasted Johnson and accused him of racism for putting up a roadblock to the Juneteenth bill. Both sides were wrong. Senator Johnson is staying true to form as a fiscal hawk. Those birds are more and more rare in an age of sweeping deficits, trillion dollar spending packages, and mounting federal debt.

In the face of a withering crossfire, Johnson has since withdrawn his amendment and is, instead, planning to introduce a bill to reduce paid leave time for federal employees to offset the cost of adding an eleventh official federal holiday to the calendar. This proposal will likely run into the buzz saw of opposition from the federal employee unions and will never be passed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s House.

In the end, we will add Juneteenth as a federal holiday. It will be a welcome and long overdue celebration of the abolition of slavery in the United States. Unfortunately, the taxpayers will be stuck with yet another bill for which we will borrow money to pay.