Fourth-richest senator kills bipartisan effort to make Juneteenth a holiday, citing fiscal concerns

Ron Johnson claims the PTO for federal workers would cost $600 million a year. Kelly Loeffler is worth $800 million

Published July 23, 2020 2:41PM (EDT)

Ron Johnson (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Ron Johnson (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

A bipartisan bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday died Wednesday in the Senate after Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., single-handedly blocked it, citing the cost to the private sector.

"I object to the fact that by naming it a national holiday, what they're leaving out of their argument, the main impact of that is it gives federal workers a paid day off that the rest of Americans have to pay for," Johnson said on the day of the vote.

The bill's sponsors — Sens. John Cornyn, R-Tex., and Ed Markey, D-Mass., a conservative and progressive who between the pair straddle nearly the full partisan spectrum of the Senate — tried to call a floor vote of unanimous consent to pass the bill. It would officially commemorate June 19, 1865, which marks the de facto end of slavery in the U.S.

Both senators spoke, each calling slavery the nation's "original sin."

"Our country is in the midst of a long overdue reckoning on race and justice," Markey said, citing the social justice movement which swept the country after George Floyd's death in police custody.

"But this reckoning goes well beyond seeking accountability for police officers who betray the trust we bestow upon them," he continued. "The mistreatment of Black and brown Americans permeates our society. It infects our courts, our schools, our places of work. It reflects the unfulfilled promise of a nation built upon the notion that all are created equal. And it has its roots in our nation's original sin — slavery — a crime against humanity that we have for far too long failed to acknowledge or address or come to grips with."

Cornyn called the bill an "act of racial reconciliation," pointing out that his home state of Texas had already celebrated the holiday for 40 years.

"There is a moment available to us here where we can demonstrate our nonpartisan support for this act of racial reconciliation in our country," Cornyn said.

The Republican senator also pointed out the dark hypocrisy of the founders' claim that "all men and women are created equal."

"That certainly wasn't the practice when it came to Africa-Americans at the time, which were officially designated as something less than fully human, an outrageous — outrageous — act at the time," the senator from the Lone Star state said.

"And our country has paid a dear price for that over the years from a Civil War to the violence that led up to the peaceful civil rights movement in the 1960's, and it's obvious from the recent events . . . that we're not where we need to be," Cornyn continued. "We still have room to grow as part of that — developing that more perfect union."

Johnson, however, said that while he supported celebrating the end of slavery, he could not vote on the legislation without a cost estimate from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

The former industrial CEO, who ranked as the fourth-richest senator by OpenSecrets in 2018 with a net worth of approximately $78.4 million, claimed that private enterprise eats "about $600 million per year" for the 10 paid holidays for federal workers. Sen. Kelly Loefler, R-Geo., has circulated an article claiming that she and her husband are worth $800 million.

Johnson suggested that federal workers should make a trade: "Why don't we take away one of their days of paid leave?"

Markey rejected that notion, saying: "We shouldn't be penalizing our workers by taking away benefits, especially not in the current environment, and especially not as the price to pay for recognizing a long overdue federal holiday."

Earlier this month, Johnson offered an amendment to trade Juneteenth for Columbus Day — saying it was "lightly celebrated and would not be disruptive to most Americans' schedules" — but immediately retracted it amid outrage from conservatives.

"I was in no way deprecating Christopher Columbus' achievements or expressing any value judgment regarding his place in history," he explained. "As I stated in an interview with the Milwaukee Press Club last Friday, I do not support efforts to erase America's rich history — not the good, the bad or the ugly."

By Roger Sollenberger

Roger Sollenberger was a staff writer at Salon (2020-21). Follow him on Twitter @SollenbergerRC.

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Black Lives Matter Ed Markey John Cornyn Juneteenth Kelly Loeffler Republicans Ron Johnson