President Obama diminished the relevance of his office on Thursday with the stroke of a robotic pen. He became the first commander in chief to hand off bill-signing duties to a machine because he happened to be in France when the House gave final passage to a bill extending the Patriot Act just four hours before the midnight expiration date for several provisions.
At 11:53 p.m., the White House press office released a statement claiming, "the president signed into law" the act. In reality, a device mimicked Mr. Obama's signature onto the enrolled bill. White House spokesman Nick Shapiro told The Washington Times that an autopen was used because "failure to sign this legislation posed a significant risk to U.S. national security." Mr. Shapiro said that an aide met with the president at 5:45 a.m. (local time in France), and that "the president reviewed and approved the legislation" and directed the aide "in writing to use the autopen to sign the bill so it could be signed into law before the deadline."
Rep. Tom Graves questions the legitimacy of this novel procedure. "I believe President Obama should have excused himself from France early and paid the American people the proper level of respect by personally signing the controversial Patriot Act," the Georgia Republican told The Washington Times. Mr. Graves sent Mr. Obama a letter asking for a detailed explanation for his action, but he hasn't heard back.
The president's role in the legislative process is defined in the U.S. Constitution: "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."
Obama administration officials are now pointing to a Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) memorandum from the George W. Bush administration that argued an autopen machine could fulfill this constitutional requirement. "When a White House acts in accordance with an OLC opinion, politically speaking they are within the law," Mr. Bush's former press secretary, Ari Fleischer, told The Washington Times. "Of course, someone with standing can challenge the matter in court. In the use of the autopen, the Obama White House would have been better off if they hadn't used it for the first time on such an important piece of legislation. President Bush never used an autopen on bills, but the administration did give consideration to trying it on a minor matter, just to test its constitutionality. In the end though, Bush just kept signing the parchment himself."
Sen. Chuck Grassley, ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, isn't convinced and is currently reviewing the 2005 opinion, according to a spokesman for the Iowa Republican.
Whether it's speeches automated by a teleprompter or now bills being auto-signed, Mr. Obama seems less and less engaged in the duties of the office that don't involve a golf course, foreign junkets or lavish parties. The Constitution's words are clear: "he shall sign it" - not "he shall sign it, but if he's not available, anyone can stick it under a machine and make it law."
Emily Miller is a senior editor for the Opinion pages at The Washington Times.
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