“We need to be informed,” McDonald said in an interview. “As the congressman’s chief of staff, I’m his top policy adviser, so it’s important to learn about as many issues as I can.”
After the 2010 trip was over, most staffers returned to Washington. McDonald flew on to Bangkok to begin a cultural-exchange trip there courtesy of the Thai government.
Quick, who runs the U.S.-Asia Foundation, said excursions to places like Nanjing Road in Shanghai are necessary to give a comprehensive view of the Chinese culture and economy. He noted that the tours don’t go to resorts or other purely recreational locales.
Quick said the trips were started at the request of two former senior lawmakers, Sen. Hugh Scott (R-Pa.), a minority leader in the Senate for nearly a decade, and Rep. Thomas Morgan (D-Pa.), a onetime chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. About 70 Hill employees travel with the foundation annually, on trips with themes such as national defense and intellectual property.
“Our singular goal is to make this a meaningful and productive experience for the staffers,” Quick said. “We’re very proud of the work that we’ve done and the programs that we’ve organized.”
Under the ethics rules set by Congress, all funding in support of the cultural-exchange trips must come from foreign governments, in this case China. But the foundation that arranges the trips has its own corporate sponsors, such as Wal-Mart.
A Wal-Mart spokeswoman, Brooke Buchanan, said the company funds the U.S.-Asia Foundation to reach congressional staffers. “We look at it as an opportunity to talk about Wal-Mart,” Buchanan said.
The foundation is one of four U.S. nonprofit groups that organize similar trips to China. Another one, the U.S.-China Policy Foundation, has donors including FedEx, Hershey and drug-maker Amgen as well as Chinese companies, according to the group’s Web site.
General Motors was not a member of the U.S.-Asia Foundation in 2010, when staffers visited the firm’s pavilion at the Shanghai expo, but it is today. “Anything we can do to educate lawmakers and staff on how a global business works is worth it,” said spokeswoman Heather Rosenker. “It’s smart business practice.”
When the ethics reform bill passed the House and Senate, the legislation made no mention of foreign-financed cultural-exchange trips, but Democratic leadership inserted a specific exemption for them in the final bill just before passage, according to copies of the legislation.