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New York is commemorating 9/11 with somber tributes at the site of the World Trade Center attacks. Each year at ground zero, victims' relatives infuse the name reading ceremony with personal messages of remembrance, inspiration and political concern. (Sept. 11) AP

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Remembrances marked Sept. 11 attacks Tuesday in lower Manhattan, at the Pentagon and in western Pennsylvania as mourners reflected on the nearly 3,000 lives lost 17 years ago.

And while Congress has designated Sept. 11 as a day of observance known, officially, as Patriot Day, the date most Americans know as 9/11 has not joined the ranks of official holidays such as Memorial Day or Veterans Day.

It's not a national holiday because, strictly speaking, national holidays don't exist in the United States: Neither the president nor Congress has ever asserted its power to declare a holiday that binds all 50 states, as the Library of Congress notes, but Congress has established 11 federal holidays that apply only to federal employees and the District of Columbia. 

Federal holidays range from Christmas Day, New Year's Day and Memorial Day, when many non-federal employers follow the government's cue and close, to Presidents Day and Columbus Day, when many do not.

But new federal holidays come few and far between – four in the past 100 years – and Congress doesn't seem keen on adding more any time soon. So says Donald Wolfensberger, a former House Rules Committee staffer who now specializes in Congress at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

“I think right now the thinking in Congress is there are too many federal holidays," said Wolfensberger, noting that some have called for doing away with one of the holidays, Columbus Day, after views on the explorer have evolved.

"So it’s a question of how you commemorate an incident: Do you have to give all federal workers a day off to make it significant? I don’t think so."

What's more, Wolfensberger said, turning 9/11 into a federal holiday could detract from Sept. 11 remembrances that occur at workplaces of federal employees, including at the Pentagon, where one of the attacks occurred. 

Optics aside, the government's bottom line could discourage new federal holidays, too: A paid holiday for federal employees can cost taxpayers well over $430 million in pay and lost productivity, as the National Taxpayers Union, a conservative anti-tax group, once estimated.

And even if Congress did want a new federal holiday, 9/11 would seem an unlikely candidate. American holidays, by and large, don't commemorate tragedies, said Brian Balogh, a historian at the University of Virginia who co-hosts the American history podcast "BackStory." 

“That’s not to say hundreds of thousands of lives were not lost in some wars celebrated through Memorial Day or Veterans Day, but those are, in essence, celebrations," Balogh said.

Plus, Balogh said, a federal holiday enshrining a day off on 9/11 could risk losing meaning for many Americans over time. As years grow between a nation and a tragic event, Balogh said, "it’s pretty close to a historical fact" that the sense of tragedy associated with that event lessens.  

Time creates similar rifts for federal holidays already: Memorial Day for many means a day to barbecue. Presidents Day has become tied to mattress sales, Balogh noted. 

"It’s a holiday, a day off, and it does become a day to extend your vacation or go to an amusement park," he said. 

"And I’m not blaming people for that: I think they simply just lose the meaning of the original historical moment. That’s human nature.”

Follow Josh Hafner on Twitter: @joshhafner 

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