WASHINGTON — Generations of children learned the basics of the American legislative process from a “Schoolhouse Rock” cartoon, in which “Bill” sings, “If he signs me, then I’ll be a law.”
But now, apparently for the first time in United States history, a bill has been signed into law by autopen, at the direction of President Obama, who [was] in Europe on a weeklong trip.
Congress on Thursday passed legislation extending the Patriot Act for four years. With the existing terror-fighting authorities set to expire at midnight [last] Thursday, the White House concluded that a mechanical signature would have to do.
With that, Mr. Obama turned the autopen, a machine that reproduces signatures and is ubiquitous in government and business for routine transactions — letters, photos, promotional materials — into the ultimate stand-in.
He and his lawyers also found a way around a routine but costly tradition, in which White House staff members fly, unsigned legislation in hand, to wherever the president happens to be.
That tradition dates back decades.
In 1947, President Harry Truman signed a Greek-Turkish aid bill in the Hotel Muelbach in Kansas City, Mo., after the legislation was “flown to him by courier,” according to a report in The New York Times.
In 2005, President George W. Bush raced to Washington in Air Force One from his Texas ranch to sign a bill to make doctors keep feeding Terri Schiavo, the comatose Florida woman whose husband was fighting to end her life.
Last year, vacationing in Hawaii, Mr. Obama signed into law several bills passed by the lame-duck Democratic Congress, including legislation providing health care benefits to Sept. 11 rescue workers.
This week, the White House had a staff member ready to fly to Europe, but Congress delayed action longer than expected. And so at 5:45 a.m. in France — 15 minutes before the midnight expiration on the East Coast — Mr. Obama was awakened, officials said. He reviewed the final legislation and directed that the autopen be used.
White House officials said that the administration believed it was the first time any president had used an autopen to sign legislation.
Representative Tom Graves, Republican of Georgia, wrote a letter to Mr. Obama on Friday questioning the legal basis for using an autopen. Article 1, Section 7 of the Constitution requires that a bill “be presented to the president of the United States; if he approve he shall sign it.”
White House officials said they based their decision on a 2005 memorandum by the Justice Department, which concluded that “the president need not personally perform the physical act of affixing his signature to a bill to sign it.”
Instead, the president’s lawyers said at the time, “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.”
Despite that opinion, it appears that Mr. Bush never used an autopen to sign a bill.