A lot of gimmicky bills are proposed each Congressional session, but few are quite as ridiculous as the proposal by a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House and Senate to create a new federal income tax break for the cash bonuses received by U.S. Olympic medalists. Not willing to be outdone by Congress, the Obama Administration has even voiced support for the legislation, saying that they want "to ensure that we’re doing everything we can to honor and support our Olympic athletes."
Unfortunately, this isn't the first time lawmakers have proposed a special carve-out for Olympic medalists. In fact, this latest push is just a rehashing of identical bills pushed during the 2012 Olympics, which led us back then to have a real facepalm moment.
First, the income tax system should be neutral in terms of how individuals earn their income and there is no moral or economic case for exempting the earnings of Olympic athletes over other categories of workers. Is the work being done by Olympic athletes really more noble than say the work being done by firefighters, EMTs or soldiers?
Second, aren’t lawmakers always claiming they want to make the tax code simpler? Isn’t it obviously more complicated to fill the tax code with provisions treating different groups of people differently?
And this proposal would, in fact, add provisions to the tax code to benefit a very small subset of people, around 100 or so US citizens who receive an Olympic medal every two years.
The way the proposal is being promoted is also wildly dishonest. The proponents of the bill have based their campaign on the eye-catching, yet false, claim that Olympic athletes could end up owing as much as $10,000 in taxes on the bonus from their gold medal. The reality is that this $10,000 figure is completely bunk because most Olympic athletes are not wealthy enough to pay the full 39.6 percent rate on the gold medal that the figure assumes. In addition, Olympic athletes could potentially wipe out the entirety of the tax by deducting the expense of their training and travel for the event.
As if all of this was not bad enough, it seems that the legislative language is so broadly written that it could actually allow exemptions for huge cash bonuses given to Olympic competitors through endorsement deals. For example, if the legislation passed, the well-known Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps could structure his future endorsement deals such that he receives $300,000 tax-free for each medal earned.
Hopefully, lawmakers will resist the clarion call of publicity surrounding these and other gimmicky tax proposals and push real tax reform options going forward.
Photo of Olympics via U.S. Army IMCOM Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0