Health clubs press for membership tax break

Health-club owners are on Capitol Hill this week to drum up support for a measure that would allow companies to get a tax deduction for their employees’ gym memberships.

The legislation, known as the Workforce Health Improvement (WHIP) Act, would drive up membership rolls at health clubs and promote physical fitness for inactive and overweight Americans, the gym owners argue.

“We know that physical exercise is an acknowledged, proven and cost-effective therapy in the prevention and treatment of a significant number of diseases — from cancer to depression, from diabetes to heart disease,” said John McCarthy, executive director of the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA). “The WHIP Act, and our efforts here in Washington this week, are part of our ongoing efforts to help remove the barriers to exercise.”

Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Reps. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) have sponsored Senate and House versions of the legislation.

Similar bills introduced in the 108th Congress gained modest support.

The proposed legislation would allow companies to treat off-site gym memberships as employee benefits, a potential boon to independent gym owners. It would also prevent those benefits from being counted as taxable income for employees. Current law allows only onsite, employer-provided fitness facilities to be classified as benefits.

Obesity and inactivity in Americans have received scant attention from Congress in recent years. Last year, the House passed the so-called “Cheeseburger Bill,” which would have shielded fast-food chains from lawsuits charging that the restaurants’ hefty offerings contributed to customers’ expanding waistlines and subsequent health problems.

Lawmakers themselves have complimentary fitness facilities onsite on Capitol Hill. A number of lawmakers enjoy staying in shape. Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) regularly runs in ultramarathons, which are races longer than the standard marathon distance of 26 miles. Many members of Congress, including Sens. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and John Sununu (R-N.H.), took part in a three-mile run last weekend sponsored by the American Council of Life Insurers.

Some legislators have struggled with obesity. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) had gastric bypass surgery in 2002 in a successful effort to bring his weight under 300 pounds.

Aside from the gym owners, many other interest groups have been drawing their members to Washington in recent months to lobby on various issues. Spring is a prime season for such legislative “fly-ins,” as they are sometimes known, because Congress is in session and new legislation is just beginning to get off the ground.

This year, however, the Senate battle over filibustering judicial nominees may hamper debate in the Senate and prevent the chamber from considering other business.