MELISSA BLOCK, host:
In Washington, there's an old saying that everyone has a lobbyist. That includes foreign governments. As NPR's Peter Overby reports, the paid lobbyists for the government of Egypt are suddenly under scrutiny.
PETER OVERBY: It was last summer when senators John McCain and Russ Feingold introduced a bipartisan resolution criticizing the Egyptian government. It called on Cairo to stop arbitrary detention and torture and ensure free elections.
Advocates on both sides started contacting senators. Mississippi Republican Roger Wicker says he spoke with the Egyptian ambassador and with a human rights group.
Senator ROGER WICKER (Republican, Mississippi): And I did speak to Representative Livingston.
OVERBY: That's Bob Livingston, once a powerful GOP congressman, now a successful lobbyist. He called Wicker because the Egyptian government is a client.
Since 2007, the Mubarak government has employed Livingston and two other top lobbyists: former Democratic congressman Toby Moffett and Tony Podesta, one of the most influential Democratic lobbyists in town these days. They all either declined or didn't respond to interview requests.
The human rights resolution they opposed never got voted on. Senator Wicker says he expressed concerns that slowed it down, as did other senators.
Sen. WICKER: I didn't do anything from a parliamentary standpoint. I didn't object. I didn't place a hold on the resolution.
OVERBY: And the senator says his stand was not related to an $800 million shipbuilding contract in his home state. A shipyard there is building four missile ships for the Egyptian navy. Last spring, the keel was laid for the first ship. Lobbyist Livingston flew down for the ceremony. Bill Allison is with the Sunlight Foundation.
Mr. BILL ALLISON (Sunlight Foundation) It's a photo op. It's very similar to when members of Congress have the earmarks and pose with the giant checks.
OVERBY: The Sunlight Foundation has been analyzing the disclosure records from lobbyists for foreign governments. Their analysis shows the Livingston-Moffett-Podesta partnership making literally hundreds of contacts each year with lawmakers, Hill staffers and State Department and Pentagon officials.
The agenda item for many of the contacts is arms sales. Every year, the U.S. sends Egypt $1.3 billion, and Egypt sends it back for purchases of U.S.-made weaponry.
The mainstay of the Egyptian air force is the F-16 fighter. And last week at Tahrir Square, those big, turreted tanks were M1-A1s, products made in America by General Dynamics.
The big defense contractor is also a lobbying client of Tony Podesta. So when it's time to bring Egyptian military buyers together with U.S. contractors, Allison at the Sunlight Foundation says that the Podesta firm is in a sweet spot.
Mr. ALLISON: By advocating for the interests of both sides of the deal, you know, they - it's almost like they can't lose.
OVERBY: But even if it's good for the lobbyists, exactly why does Cairo need to hire lobbyists in D.C. when it already has its ambassador and an embassy full of attaches? Mostly, it's about Congress.
Michele Dunne is a Middle East expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Ms. MICHELE DUNNE (Middle East Expert, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace): I think they've been able, to some extent, to call on their personal relationships, personal relationships with members of Congress, and ability to get their telephone calls through.
OVERBY: Dunne has been in and out of Cairo for years, with the State Department as well as the Carnegie Endowment. And she's noticed something.
Ms. DUNNE: No, I'm pretty sure the U.S. does not have lobbyists in Cairo.
OVERBY: Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.