The bill would encourage businesses to subsidize workers' workouts by letting the companies claim the contributions as income tax deductions.
The Workforce Health Improvement Program (WHIP) was drafted by a health club industry association, which sees the plan as a way to foster fitness - and, not incidentally, to get more members in the doors.
"What we are really trying to do is to extend the health benefits of exercise to as many Americans as we can," said John McCarthy, executive director of the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association.
The tax code currently lets companies deduct the costs of exercise facilities only if the facilities are at the work site, so generally only bigger businesses, with 500 workers or more, have them, McCarthy said. The proposed change would open the deduction to smaller businesses, he said.
The plan would let employees choose how and where they want to work out, McCarthy said. "This bill supports all fitness suppliers - YMCAs, Jewish community centers, Jazzercise," he said.
However, WHIP specifically excludes private clubs owned and operated by their members, and facilities that "offer golf, hunting, sailing or riding."
Leisure, not fitness, is the primary focus of those operations, McCarthy said.
He also conceded that letting companies deduct memberships in country clubs, yacht clubs, riding clubs or hunt clubs would be the kiss of death in Congress.
"We are not trying to connect this to leisure activities," McCarthy said. "That's why we framed this bill as the Workforce Health Improvement Program."
The exclusions do not sit easily with Jim Singerling, chief executive officer of Club Managers of America, a professional association whose members include officials at private clubs.
While Singerling does not oppose the measure, he considered it unfair to cut out country clubs that have fitness facilities, saying it would hurt flabby but well-off desk jockeys who could use the exercise.
"It's as big a problem for the more successful people - a bigger problem for them in many cases than for the average blue-collar worker," Singerling said.
WHIP was introduced by Rep. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., who said smaller businesses should get the same exercise tax breaks that bigger ones have. "This bill will provide some leveling of the playing field," he said.
Toomey, who is in a primary race for Arlen Specter's Senate seat, described himself as an avid exerciser when his congressional and campaign schedule allow it. When the IHRSA proposal was suggested to him, he was happy to sign on, he said.
The proposal is before the Ways and Means Committee, and committee member Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said it has the possibility of wide support. "I'm in the gym every morning. I usually see Pat Toomey there," Ryan said. "There are a lot of people in Congress who are really health-conscious."
The measure probably will be considered this summer when the committee works on a health care package, Ryan said.
The measure "does have a chance," but its cost will be a big issue, Ryan said. A lot will depend on what congressional analysts will project as the loss to the federal budget if the deduction is allowed, he said.
Using the tax code to promote physical activity has strong support from Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., co-chairman of the House fitness caucus, which formed in January to promote exercise by members of the House and the public.
"We will cut the cost of health care if we promote with our tax code more wellness, fitness and exercise," Wamp said.
If WHIP passes the House, it might find strong support from a fellow Tennessean in the Senate, Wamp said. Majority Leader Bill Frist "is our No. 1 ally," he said. Before being elected to the Senate in 1994, Frist was a heart and lung transplant surgeon.
By Ira Dreyfuss