Barack Obama became the first U.S. president in history to use a mechanical autopen to sign a bill into law when he affixed a replica of his signature to legislation extending the Patriot Act in May 2011.
The law was initially passed after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to give law enforcement officials greater power to tap into telephone and email communications, as well as medical and financial records.
So he directed the White House to use the autopen, a device that mechanically stamps a likeness of his signature, to sign the Patriot Act extension. White House spokesman Nick Shapiro said the measure was too important to allow expire.
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"Failure to sign this legislation poses a significant risk to U.S. national security," Shapiro said in a statement to the media.
The extension would have become law 10 days after Congress passed it even without Obama's signature, but the administration was unwilling to have it expire for that short amount of time.
The question is: Can he really use an autopen to make law?
Obama Autopen Use Draw Criticism
One Republican lawmaker, Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Graves of Georgia, raised questions about the constitutionality of Obama's use of the autopen.
"Mr. President, I write to request your confirmation that S. 990, as passed by Congress, was presented to you prior to the autopen signing, as well as a detailed, written explanation of your Constitutional authority to assign a surrogate the responsibility of signing bills passed into law," Graves wrote to the president.
Article 1 Section 7 of the Constitution requires the president to sign a bill before it can be law. "Every Bill which shall have passed the House of Representatives and the Senate, shall, before it become a Law, be presented to the President of the United States; If he approve he shall sign it, but if not he shall return it," the Constitution reads.
The Constitution seems to preclude the use of an autopen, though the Founding Fathers probably could never have imagined such technology. So how can Obama get away with using an autopen?
White House Defends Use of Autopen
The autopen is routinely used for ordinary White House matters such as letters, ceremonial photos and promotional materials. But it had never before been used to sign a bill into law, according to published reports.
Also see: Obama's Oval Office
The Obama administration was not the first to support the use of the autopen to sign legislation, though. A U.S. Department of Justice memorandum drafted in 2005 under President George W. Bush concluded "the president need not personally perform the physical act of affixing his signature to a bill to sign it."
Bush lawyers added, however, "We emphasize that we are not suggesting that the president may delegate the decision to approve and sign a bill, only that, having made this decision, he may direct a subordinate to affix the president's signature to the bill."
Neither Bush nor any other president before used the autopen to sign a bill.