Privatize Columbus Day

Christopher Columbus, explorer and honoree.

Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

American taxpayers who don’t get Monday off are footing the bill for federal employees who do. If their local public schools are closed, they may have to pay still more for child care. All to honor a 15th-century explorer who never set foot in America, wasn’t the first European to reach the continent, and thought China was somewhere in the Caribbean.

The debate over whether Christopher Columbus is a national hero or imperial villain rages on, and probably always will. But both sides ought to agree on one thing: He shouldn’t be a burden on taxpayers and a drag on the economy.

Columbus Day is a paid holiday for all nonessential federal employees; those who have to work earn double their usual rate. Nearly half of all states and the District of Columbia also give their employees a holiday. Yet only 16 percent of private-sector employers provide their workers with a paid day off. 

This split between the private and public sectors results in headaches and lost productivity. With the Federal Reserve and Treasury shut down, most banks and the bond market close. Public school closures force many parents to miss work, too. 

Even the closing of post offices can cause problems: This year, Columbus Day coincides with voter registration deadlines in a number of states, which means forms mailed Monday in those states won’t be valid. Two U.S. senators have urged the states to extend their deadlines, which makes sense. But the better solution is for Congress to return Columbus Day to its original status.

In 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt issued a proclamation “inviting the people of the United States to observe the day in schools and churches, or other suitable places, with appropriate ceremonies expressive of the public sentiment befitting the anniversary of the discovery of America.” FDR didn’t give anyone a holiday. It was a day of national observance, not a long weekend of leaf-peeping. For students, it was an opportunity to learn history.

In 1968, however, under pressure from Italian-American organizations (they had more clout than Icelandic voters, whose native son beat Columbus to the continent by nearly 500 years), Congress made it a holiday for federal workers. Since then, it’s become a flash point of Columbus controversy.

In 1990, South Dakota renamed it Native Americans Day, as part of a reconciliation effort. Some local governments, as a protest against Columbus and white ethnocentrism, have rechristened it Indigenous People’s Day. Whatever the name, and whatever the celebration, one thing has remained constant: Taxpayers are stuck with the bill -- several hundred million dollars in pay and lost productivity -- and the inconvenience of closed government offices. As a cost-saving measure taken in 2009, California rescinded the holiday for state workers.

Without Columbus Day, government workers would still have more paid holidays than many private-sector employees. And all Americans could still observe the second Monday in October any way they wish.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.