WASHINGTON — To hear Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) tell it, the IRS is one step away from ruining the lives of 20,000 teenage golf caddies and setting off a chain reaction that could decimate the ranks of America's economic elite.
Fortunately, however, if you're carrying clubs this summer--golf clubs, that is--you've got a friend in Burton, the conservative Capitol Hill crusader known most recently for publicly calling President Clinton a "scumbag."
But now Burton is on a different quest, intent on derailing a supposed IRS plot to shake down club-carrying kids who don't pay taxes on their earnings. Hence Burton's recently introduced "Caddie Relief Act of 1999"--opening a new loophole for the golf-course underprivileged.
"These kids don't make much money, and I don't know why the IRS thinks it's going to raise revenues," Burton says. "This act will discourage them from ever trying it again."
There are an estimated 20,000 caddies in the country, the vast majority of them high-school kids on summer vacation. They are paid by the golfers for whom they work, either directly or through clubs.
As a way to make pocket money and rub shoulders with the elite, it can't be beat, says Burton, who should know. He caddied for six years in the 1950s, earned 75 cents per bag for 18 holes and, once, met golf legend Ben Hogan.
Nowadays, says Burton, who at 60 is still a 9-handicapper, a caddie makes $10 to $15 per bag plus a $5 tip. "In a Midwestern golf season, a kid will caddie 100 rounds" and take home $2,000, which is too little to be taxed if it's the sum of total earnings. "So why tax it?"
Interest in the caddies' dilemma began to percolate in 1995, when the IRS showed up at Westchester Country Club in New York for an audit, and suggested that the club's caddies were paid employees and not "independent contractors" responsible for their own filings. The feds wanted Westchester to pay up.
Westchester Country Club, not exactly the neighborhood pitch 'n' putt, wasn't impressed. It began enlisting the help of every golfer in the United States. Westchester and the IRS eventually settled, and caddies were not part of the deal.
An IRS spokeswoman contacted this year could barely remember the Westchester case, and, after further research, reported that "there is not a nationally coordinated project on caddies" underway, nor is there one planned.
But the fear, for some reason, lives on.
The Caddie Relief Act today is being advanced not only by Burton, but also by the National Club Assn., representing about 1,000 private country and city clubs nationwide, and the ad hoc "Coalition to Preserve Caddie Programs," with more than 50 membership organizations, including the PGA.
The caddie-relief riff holds that doing IRS paperwork for caddies would be such an administrative pain for clubs that most would simply trade in their human beings for motorized carts.
"Kids would forfeit an opportunity to work outdoors and earn money, and lose the chance to meet important people," Burton says. And then there are the serious health considerations: "Golfers would be making the rounds in carts and getting heart attacks."
To head off this catastrophe, Burton set the congressional machinery in motion. The Caddie Relief Act now is before the House Ways and Means Committee, where it nestles in the friendly company of legislation like the inheritance tax, capital-gains tax and the marriage penalty.
Meanwhile, as chairman of the Government Reform and Oversight Committee, Burton plans to bring former caddies like Lee Trevino and Chi Chi Rodriguez to testify on the character-building qualities of bag-carrying. The Western Golf Assn. will be asked to talk about its $7.5-million Evans Scholarship program, which pays tuition and housing for more than 800 caddies at 14 different colleges.
"If this legislation were not to pass, it would have an adverse effect on caddies throughout the country," says Jim Moore, educational director for the Chicago-based Evans Scholars. Fewer caddies would mean a smaller pool of scholarship candidates.
And, finally, Burton will summon some of the IRS' faceless bureaucrats to explain why they launched a punitive expedition against caddies four years ago in Westchester and to make them promise not to do it again.
For those who think that Congress might spend its time more profitably elsewhere, keep in mind that the House this year has already debated and passed the Leif Ericson Millennium Commemorative Coin Act, the Export Apple Act and the Death on the High Seas Act.
This is not fast company.