Over the past two weeks, we cheered as American athletes won medal after medal at the Rio Olympics, reflecting outstanding performances by Team USA. At the same time our athletes were winning cheers for their achievements in Brazil, Congress was receiving hearty boos across the United States. In the latest poll, Congress earned record low scores for its failure to perform in Washington, with just 9 percent of Americans approving of the job it is doing.
Perhaps one reason Congress earns such low marks is the penchant of its members to talk about problems without actually taking any action to solve them. In fact, Congress moves so slowly that if its current term were an Olympic race, both the House and Senate would have been lapped by snails (#lappedbysnails).
Fortunately, many challenges that the United States faces as a nation can be addressed – often more successfully – if Congress does nothing. For example, it took Congress nearly 15 years to agree on how to fix the serious flaws in its 2002 landmark education law, No Child Left Behind. Yet teachers across the country managed to educate a generation of millennials anyway. Leading from behind as it so often does, Congress finally enacted long-overdue changes to the law earlier this year.
Unfortunately, some challenges require coordinated action by the federal government, and a serious commitment that transcends merely giving speeches on the Senate floor. One such challenge is the threat to public health – particularly to the health of pregnant women and their unborn children – posed by the spread of the Zika virus. Yet when the Obama administration and career experts in public health asked Congress for $1.9 billion in emergency funding to combat this known and imminent threat, lawmakers adjourned for the summer without passing a bill.
When Congress wants to do something badly enough, however, it can move at the speed of light -- even if that something sets bad policy, creates other problems, is unpaid for, and helps only a few people, many of whom don’t need the help. I refer to the misguided election-year stunt in which congressional leaders of both parties propose to exempt from federal income taxation not only the value of the medals earned by U.S. Olympians, but also the $4.5 million in cash payments that 213 American medal winners will receive from the U.S. Olympic Committee.
The first lesson students learn in their first tax class in law school concerns section 61 of the Internal Revenue Code. That section defines gross income as “all income from whatever source derived.” And one of the first cases about section 61 teaches that even found money – treasure trove, in legal jargon – is income for tax purposes. It is clear that bonuses for outstanding performance earned by ordinary workers are also taxable. Many of those workers make enormous sacrifices, sometimes working two and three jobs, to provide for their families. If Congress wants to honor the sacrifices made by Americans who do extraordinary things, it should exempt those bonuses too. Unfortunately, ordinary workers who achieve world-class results rarely make the nightly news, and that kind of tax relief costs a lot of money.
There is something very wrong with our priorities as a nation when our elected officials fast- track tax relief for Olympic athletes – many of whom are well-paid professional athletes – and place funding for a serious threat to public health on the back burner. Congress should be ashamed of itself.