The U.S.-Asia Foundation does not have a website. It doesn't need one.
Word of its trips to China spreads like wildfire from congressional office to office, over lunch at Longworth cafeteria and coffee at the Cannon carryout. There are whispers of trekking on the Great Wall, luxury stays at the Ritz, and, of course, the price – free.
For more than two decades, Richard G. Quick has led a nonprofit that has raised big bucks from big businesses to take the nation's leaders to Asia. For just as long, he's provided the corporations bankrolling his operations, and sometimes their lobbyists, a special spot on the itinerary.
Microsoft, Wal-Mart, General Motors, Phillip Morris, UPS – all among America's biggest companies and all have been among Quick's corporate backers. He has helmed the organization through four presidential administrations, three name changes, and one huge crackdown on congressional travel in the wake the Jack Abramoff influence-peddling scandal.
"We've evolved," Quick said.
Quick, a 71-year old retired brigadier general in the Army Reserve, said opening the door for lawmakers and their aides to China is crucial "because of the tremendous economic and geopolitical interest this country has" there.
He said he's carrying forward the vision of the nonprofit's founders, former Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott, a Republican Quick worked for in the 1970s, and former Democratic Rep. Thomas Morgan, who once chaired the international relations committee. The original goal was to make the Far East closer than ever for congressional chieftains and their aides who wanted a first-hand look. "At the time, there really weren't many groups that focused on Asia," he said.
It has worked. Dozens of lawmakers and hundreds of congressional aides (some of whom later became lawmakers) have gone on Quick-organized voyages, including about 50 staffers in 2013.
Yet even after more than two decades in business, Quick is little known in much of the Capitol, and barely a blip beyond. But that low profile belies his influence. His foundation has helped shape the worldview of a generation of Capitol Hill policymakers.
Throughout, his modus operandi has stayed consistent: collect corporate cash in exchange for congressional access abroad.
Tobacco industry memos, archived by the University of California at San Francisco, outline the pay-to-play arrangements dating back to the early 1990s. "As a corporate sponsor, I look forward to joining this year's agricultural and tobacco trade delegation to China," a senior Phillip Morris official, Gregory Scott, wrote to Quick in 1994. The letter was accompanied by a $15,000 check. A $25,000 dues check followed for 1995.
Quick's trips have flown mostly under the political radar. But a December 1996 jaunt to Burma for top House Republicans, including Tom DeLay and Dennis Hastert, was an exception. The trip came amid the threat of U.S. sanctions and included a tour of a remote region where oil company Unocal was building a pipeline that sanctions would have hampered. Unocal was then a corporate supporter of the foundation.
Quick said at the time that the trip's agenda was determined for the lawmakers. "If that coincides with the interests of one of the contributors, so be it," he told the Associated Press.
A 2003 trip to China also drew some attention. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported it includes "some 40 lobbyists" for UPS, a corporate donor, and a handful of congressmen building a computer lab. "They would actually take off the suits and ties and put on their work clothes and participate in building," Quick recalled to National Journal, comparing it to Habitat for Humanity. "They're not there to lobby. They're there to build that building."
David Bolger, a UPS spokesman, told the Post-Dispatch at the time, "We want to take the opportunity, while we're nailing down plywood with a member of Congress, to say you may not have known this [about UPS]."
When the foundation first began, it paid for the trips itself – and touted the fact that it involved no foreign money. Today, it's the exact opposite. The foundation's congressional delegations, which in recent years have gone exclusively to China, are currently paid for by the People's Republic of China. Quick and his team serve as intermediaries on Capitol Hill that arrange the excursions.
Why the flip? "That's primarily a result of how they changed the rules on Capitol Hill," Quick explained.
The 2007 tightening of congressional travel rules after the Abramoff scandal barred nonprofits from paying for trips that featured lobbyists, as Quick's did. But a loophole in a 1961 "cultural exchange" law lets lobbyists and their employers stay involved if it's a country, not a company or nonprofit, that picks up the bill.
That means Beijing pays the travel costs for lawmakers and their aides. And Quick's corporate sponsors pay his foundation's operating costs, including the $150,000 salaries of Quick and his wife, the executive director, in exchange for seeing their interests reflected on congressional travel itineraries. The couple's salaries made up a majority of the nonprofit's spending in 2012, the most recent taxes available.
"You don't have to be a supporter of our foundation to visit your facility," Quick said. But it helps. "Oh absolutely, it makes it a lot easier for us."
A 2012 trip to China for two Democratic congressmen, Jim Matheson of Utah and Kurt Schrader of Oregon, included stops at a Walmart store in Beijing, a Microsoft research office, and a General Motors facility. All three companies have been foundation supporters. A lobbyist for Microsoft joined the lawmakers for the trip, according to a participant.
The lawmakers they had specifically requested to visit American businesses on the trip "to better understand the hurdles we face with competitiveness," Matheson said in an email.
Wal-Mart stores, in fact, have been a fixture on Quick's China tours. Past participants say delegations are typically greeted by company employees who sing aloud a Wal-Mart song.
Wal-Mart and Microsoft declined comment. GM in a statement said that the trips help "educate lawmakers and staff on how a global auto manufacturer competes in the world's largest auto market; for us this is a smart business practice."
Quick's foundation is one of four that brings congressional staff to China through the "cultural exchange" law. But not all the nonprofits have so clear a link between corporate contributors and the agenda while abroad.
The U.S.-Asia Institute, for instance, doesn't allow its corporate sponsors or their lobbyists any role in planning or accompanying trips, said Kent Lucken, the institute's president. Lucken said he would support stricter disclosure requirements – both of nonprofit's donors and the names of all travel attendees – for those who organize overseas congressional missions. Currently, neither donors nor trip attendees are disclosed.
Quick said he understood there could be worries about the links between corporate lobbyists and the policymakers on his trips. "I think the public has a right to be concerned about everything," he said. But he stressed that his organization is nonpartisan and doesn't lobby, and that any lobbyists who do come along bring expertise that is beneficial.
"It just so happens," he said, "that these registered lobbyists, for GM or Microsoft or whomever, are very knowledgeable about what's going on in China."
This article appears in the February 1, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as A Quick Trip to China.