Who Can Declare a Holiday?

And how is it done?

President Bush has declared this coming Friday a federal holiday, to honor the memory of Ronald Reagan. All federal employees not involved with national security, defense, or other “essential public business” will get the day off. Does the president have the authority to declare holidays at will?

Yep. The president can declare a one-time federal holiday any time he likes by issuing an executive order to that effect. But it’s interesting to note that in President Bush’s order regarding Reagan’s special day, the word “holiday” isn’t actually used. Instead, the day is referred to simply as a “mark of respect.” Whoever drafted the order probably employed this bit of verbal jujitsu because in Beltway lingo, “holiday” is ostensibly reserved for the 10 days that Congress has approved as permanent, annual excuses to laze around on the couch: New Year’s Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Washington’s Birthday (better known as Presidents’ Day), Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veterans’ Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. (Every four years, many federal workers also get to skip work on Inauguration Day.)


However, the order is careful to note that Reagan’s day should be “considered as falling under the scope” of the sections of the U.S. Code dealing with holiday pay. So not only will vacationing workers receive their normal day’s pay, but those who are compelled to punch the clock on Friday—like workers at the Department of Homeland Security—will receive a little extra cash for their trouble. In other words, it looks like a holiday, it pays like a holiday, but it just isn’t called a holiday.

Though an executive order is enough to declare a one-time holiday, congressional approval is required to make a holiday a fixture of the yearly federal calendar. Even then, the states aren’t compelled to abide by the congressional mandate. In the 1980s, for example, Arizona resisted giving state workers the day off on Martin Luther King Jr. Day; Arizonan voters didn’t approve the holiday until 1992, under threat of a massive tourist boycott.

To the chagrin of Department of Motor Vehicle workers who pine for a three-day weekend, only Connecticut has so far declared this Friday a state holiday. State offices will be closed in Hawaii but only because Reagan’s funeral is scheduled to coincide with Kamehameha Day, which honors a 19th-century Hawaiian king.

Next question?

Explainer thanks Mike Causey of FederalNewsRadio.com.