The Paper Trail: April 19, 2024

Key Bridge Collapse Highlights Outdated Safety Standards; EPA Unable to Clear the Air; The Human Cost of Social Security Delays; and More

The Paper Trail logo in front of government buildings in Washington, DC

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The Paper Trail

Top stories for April 19, 2024

30,000 died in fiscal 2023 waiting for disability decisions from Social Security: The 30,000 individuals who died were waiting for a decision from the agency at the initial, reconsideration, or hearing levels. Currently, the wait time for an initial disability decision is almost eight months, and the agency has a backlog of 1.1 million pending claims. (Natalie Alms, Nextgov/FCW)

Boeing whistleblower details his concerns to congressional panel: Sam Salehpour, an engineer at Boeing for over a decade, told a Senate panel this week that Boeing was knowingly putting out defective planes and that he was punished by his superiors for raising concerns. (Mark Walker, New York Times)

The EPA has done nearly everything it can to clean up this town. It hasn’t worked: Despite years of monitoring, inspections, and fining petrochemical plants millions of dollars, the air in Calvert City, Kentucky, remains polluted. Experts say the EPA’s inability to fix the problem is an indictment of the laws governing clean air. (Lisa Song, ProPublica)

Majority Latino city endures years of toxic water in health “crisis”: Fifty years after the Safe Drinking Water Act established legal limits for toxins such as arsenic in Americans’ drinking water, public health experts and former EPA officials say politics and money have played an outsize role in how the agency determines maximum levels of contaminants allowed in drinking water. (Silvia Foster-Frau, Washington Post)

Feds move to make gov websites more accessible to people with disabilities: Government websites have long been riddled with accessibility challenges for people with disabilities. A new rule seeks to rectify the issue, but it will come with a hefty price tag for state and local governments. (Chris Teale, Government Executive)

Biden administration releases revised Title IX rules: While the new rules will restore protections for sexual misconduct accusers and expand the set of harassment complaints that schools are required to investigate, they are far from the sweeping rollback of Trump-era rules that was anticipated. (Zach Montague and Erica L. Green, New York Times)

Opinion: The FISA expansion turning cable installers into spies cannot stand: The House’s reauthorization of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act contains a provision that dramatically expands the universe of entities that can be compelled to assist the government in conducting surveillance. To protect our civil liberties and democracy, the Senate must either remove this provision or vote against the bill. (Elizabeth Goitein, The Hill)

🔎 See Also: House passes bill requiring warrant to purchase data from third parties (Rebecca Beitsch, The Hill)

Francis Scott Key Bridge Collapse

Baltimore bridge collapse highlights outdated safety standards, experts say: As federal investigators probe what caused the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge, experts say the tragedy is shining a light on the need to bring bridge safety requirements into the modern era. (Michael Laris, Dan Keating, and Júlia Ledur, Washington Post)

🔎 See Also: Federal criminal investigation opened into Key Bridge crash (Katie Mettler et al., Washington Post)

“We’re a dead ship”: Hundreds of cargo ships lost propulsion in U.S. waters in recent years: In hundreds of incidents, massive cargo ships have lost propulsion, often near bridges, ports, or other critical infrastructure. (Joyce Sohyun Lee et al., Washington Post)

Israel-Hamas War

U.S., not Israel, shot down most Iran drones and missiles: “U.S. intelligence estimates that half of the weapons fired by Iran failed upon launch or in flight due to technical issues,” according to a U.S. Air Force senior officer. Of the remaining 160 or so, the U.S. shot down the majority. (Ken Klippenstein and Daniel Boguslaw, The Intercept)

Blinken is sitting on staff recommendations to sanction Israeli military units linked to killings or rapes: A special State Department panel late last year told Secretary of State Antony Blinken that the U.S. should restrict arms sales to Israeli military and police units that have been credibly accused of human rights abuses. Blinken still hasn’t taken any action. (Brett Murphy, ProPublica)

108 arrested at pro-Palestinian protest at Columbia University: Tensions over free speech have erupted on some U.S. college campuses since the war began in October. (Melissa Chan and Phil Helsel, NBC News)

🔎 See Also: Google just fired 28 employees who protested its contract with Israel (Caroline O’Donovan and Gerrit De Vynck, Washington Post)

Supreme Court Ethics

The gaping hole in Supreme Court rules for tracking links between litigants and influence groups: Parties appearing before the Supreme Court can fund the groups that file amicus briefs supporting their arguments — and almost never have to disclose it. (Shawn Musgrave, The Intercept)


Kremlin-backed actors spread disinformation ahead of U.S. elections: Influence-peddling groups affiliated with the Russian government are stepping up efforts to interfere with the U.S. presidential election by planting disinformation and false narratives on social media and fake news sites. The governments of China and Iran are also actively aiming to influence the election. (Dan Goodin, Ars Technica)

Former “Real Housewives” star Siggy Flicker’s stepson arrested on Jan. 6 charges: Tyler Campanella was arrested more than three years after Flicker posted images that Campanella apparently shot inside the Capitol. Nearly 1,400 people have been charged in connection with the insurrection. (Ryan J. Reilly, NBC News)

🔎 See Also: Supreme Court gives skeptical eye to key statute used to prosecute Jan. 6 rioters (Nina Totenberg, NPR)

Dobbs Aftermath

Emergency rooms refused to treat pregnant women, leaving one to miscarry in a lobby restroom: Complaints that pregnant women were turned away from U.S. emergency rooms spiked in 2022 after the Dobbs decision. It happened despite federal law requiring emergency rooms to treat or stabilize the patients. (Amanda Seitz, Associated Press)

Russia-Ukraine War

Opinion: Here are the U.S. congressional districts benefiting from Ukraine aid: Ninety percent of the $68 billion in military and related assistance Congress has thus far approved is being spent in the U.S., providing a major cash infusion to 122 defense production lines in 65 congressional districts. (Marc A. Thiessen, Washington Post)

Police Misconduct

Analysis: As border protection’s budget increases, so does its reach: U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the federal agency tasked with policing international borders in the U.S., is set to receive billions in additional funding. The agency, which has a troubled history, has been granted growing policing power — even in areas far from a border. (Arturo Dominguez, Unicorn Riot)

🔎 See Also: The weight of the badge: Customs and Border Protection responds to rash of agent suicides (Sam Karas, The Big Bend Sentinel)

Defense and Veterans Affairs

There’s a bigger driver of veteran radicalization than Donald Trump: A new study found that negative and traumatic life events while in the military and afterward while trying to adapt to civilian life are a main cause of veterans turning to extremism. (Daniel Boguslaw, The Intercept)

Cost of sustaining Lockheed’s F-35 jet now forecast to exceed $1.5 trillion: Nine years after the Marine Corps declared its first F-35s operational, the Pentagon now projects that the cost of operating and maintaining the jet through 2088 will be $1.58 trillion, 44% higher than originally forecast. (Anthony Capaccio, Bloomberg)

Navy’s new landing ship could cost billions more than planned: The Congressional Budget Office says the Navy’s upcoming medium landing ship could cost $3.6 billion more than the Navy expects — a 138% overrun. (Aaron Mehta, Breaking Defense)

The defense industry’s inside man in the Pacific arms race: Joseph Yun, a former special envoy for President Biden who helped shape the administration's defense policy in the Pacific, was simultaneously consulting for a private firm with financial interests in the region. (Jonathan Guyer, The Lever)

VA is trimming its PACT Act claims backlog, but enrollees may be on the “low side”: Secretary Denis McDonough says the VA is quickly processing new claims made by veterans exposed to toxic substances during their military service but warns that claims may not have hit their peak yet. (Carten Cordell, Government Executive)

Business and Finance

Pfizer’s massive tax dodge: The pharma giant received billions in federal funding and raked in $27 billion in revenue but owes nothing in 2023 federal income taxes thanks to loopholes and Trump-era tax cuts. More than 100 of the country’s most profitable corporations paid no federal income taxes in at least one year since the Trump tax cuts were enacted. (Freddy Brewster, The Lever)

Americans lose millions of dollars each year to wire transfer fraud scams. Could banks do more to stop it?: Americans lose millions every year to criminals who steal money from their bank accounts through fraudulent wire transfers. Some U.S. senators are now pressing major banks for answers about what they’re doing to stop the scammers. (Anna Werner, CBS News)

Black market marijuana tied to Chinese criminal networks infiltrates Maine: Maine is the newest frontier for the illicit marijuana trade, with potentially hundreds of suspected unlicensed grow houses operating in the state. It’s part of a larger nationwide phenomenon. (Nicole Sganga, Chrissy Hallowell, and Pat Milton, CBS News)

Expired paper license plates multiplied during COVID. The crackdown is here: The rise in fake or expired plates has been robbing governments of needed revenue and making it harder to enforce traffic laws, which the American driver seems more emboldened than ever to ignore. (Michael Corkery, New York Times)


Russia-linked hacking group suspected of carrying out cyberattack on Texas water facility, cybersecurity firm says: Officials are concerned that many of the country’s 150,000 public water systems lack the money and personnel to deal with hacking threats. (Sean Lyngaas, CNN)

“Water is more valuable than oil”: The corporation cashing in on America’s drought: In an unprecedented deal, a private company purchased land in a small Arizona town and sold its water rights to a town 200 miles away. Experts say such deals will become more common as thirsty communities across the west seek increasingly scarce water. (Maanvi Singh, The Guardian)

Power-hungry AI is putting the hurt on global electricity supply: U.S. data center electricity consumption is expected to grow from 4% to 6% of total demand by 2026, while the AI industry is forecast to expand exponentially and consume at least 10 times its 2023 demand by 2026. (Camilla Hodgson, Ars Technica)

Health Care

Chinese company under congressional scrutiny makes key U.S. drugs: WuXi AppTec, a Chinese company targeted by Congress over potential ties to the Chinese government, makes drugs that have been hailed as advances in the treatment of cancers, obesity, and debilitating illnesses. The company has also received millions of dollars in tax incentives to build research and manufacturing facilities in the U.S. (Christina Jewett, New York Times)

Universities are making billions gatekeeping your meds: Research universities have joined forces with pharmaceutical companies and Wall Street firms to fight new government efforts to curtail out-of-control drug prices. Case in point: UCLA has billions of dollars in fees and income riding on a cancer drug. (Helen Santoro, The Lever)

“Kids need to breathe just like adults do”: $35 price caps don’t apply to asthma meds young children need, doctors say: Three of the biggest makers of asthma inhalers pledged to cap out-of-pocket costs at $35, but those pledges don’t apply to the inhalers used by young children. (Meg Tirrell, CNN)

Melatonin makers urged to follow new packaging, labeling guidelines to protect kids: The number of children overdosing on melatonin has been on the rise. (Katie Kindelan, ABC News)


Immigration and Border Security:

Homeland Security investigative agency seeks rebrand, without ICE

Migration’s human toll overwhelms a border county in Texas

Black immigrant rally in NYC raises awareness about racial, religious and language inequities

Other News:

Secret Russian foreign policy document urges action to weaken the U.S.

The Supreme Court effectively abolishes the right to mass protest in three states

The U.S. just changed how it manages a tenth of its land

Retired general links private contractor to Abu Ghraib abuses

Black prisoners face higher rate of botched executions, study finds

“Wild, wild west.” Families say organs of deceased Alabama inmates have been removed without their consent

Arkansas governor’s office might’ve broken law in buying $19K lectern, audit finds

Because It’s Friday

A chunk of metal that tore through a Florida home definitely came from the ISS: NASA confirmed the object that fell on a Naples, Florida, home last month was part of a battery pack released from the International Space Station. The incident opens a new frontier in space law, as NASA, the homeowner, and lawyers navigate little-used legal codes and intergovernmental agreements to determine who should pay for the damage. (Stephen Clark, Ars Technica)

Hot Docs

🔥📃 GAO - Fraud Risk Management: 2018-2022 Data Show Federal Government Loses an Estimated $233 Billion to $521 Billion Annually to Fraud, Based on Various Risk Environments. GAO-24-105833(PDF)

🔥📃 GAO - F-35 Sustainment: Costs Continue to Rise While Planned Use and Availability Have Decreased. GAO-24-106703(PDF),

🔥📃 GAO - National Defense: Persistent Chemicals: Navy Efforts to Address PFAS at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. GAO-24-106812(PDF)

Nominations & Appointments


  • Heather M. Cahoon - Member, Board of Trustees of the Morris K. Udall and Stewart L. Udall Foundation
  • Ann C. Fisher - Commissioner, Postal Regulatory Commission
  • Carmen G. Iguina González - Judge, District of Columbia Court of Appeals
  • Miranda Holloway-Baggett - United States Marshal for the Southern District of Alabama
  • Amanda S. Jacobsen - Ambassador, Equatorial Guinea
  • Joseph R. Palmore - Judge, District of Columbia Court of Appeals
  • Ashley Jay Elizabeth Poling - Commissioner, Postal Regulatory Commission
  • Curtis Raymond Ried - U.S. Representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe
  • Shirley Sagawa - Member, Board of Directors of the Corporation for National and Community Service
  • Christophe Andre Tocco - Ambassador, Mauritania
  • John Bradford Wiegmann - General Counsel, Office of the Director of National Intelligence