House Republicans to Obama: No more Autopen to sign bills into law

AUGUST 13: U.S. President Barack Obama signs the Southwest Border Security Bill as Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano looks on in the Oval Office of the White House on August 13, 2010 in Washington, DC. The $600 million bill will place agents and equipment along the United States and Mexican border, hire 1,000 new Border Patrol agents and additional Immigration and Customs Enforcement personal, according to news reports. (Photo by Martin H. Simon-Pool/Getty Images)
Martin H. Simon-Pool/Getty Images
President Obama signs the Southwest Border Security Bill last August as Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano looks on.
Getty Images

A group of 21 House members, all Republicans, will today urge President Obama to pledge that never again will he use a mechanical device to sign a bill into law as he did on May 26th.

In a letter to Mr. Obama obtained by CBS News, the representatives also will ask him to actually sign that Patriot Act extension measure by hand, "out of an abundance of caution," so that its legitimacy will not be in doubt.

Mr. Obama was 3,700 miles from Washington at the G8 Summit in Deauville, France, on May 26th, the day Congress passed the measure hours before a midnight deadline at which time key provisions in the Patriot Act would expire.

There was no way to get the president to the bill or vice versa, so 15 minutes before the deadline, the White House says Mr. Obama authorized his Staff Secretary to have the measure signed using the autopen back at the White House. The device provides a facsimile of the president's signature and is usually used for mass mailings, such as White House Christmas Cards.

If a machine can sign for the President, could Sasha, too?
Congressman questions Patriot Act "autopen" signature

The White House defended the use of the autopen, citing a 2005 opinion from the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel. At the end of a 29-page review, that included numerous obscure legal references and frequent citations of common law, the OLC concluded:

"...the President need not personally perform the physical act of affixing his signature to a bill he approves and decides to sign in order for the bill to become law. Rather, the President may sign a bill within the meaning of Article I, Section 7 by directing a subordinate to affix the President's signature to such a bill, for example by autopen."
But the House members reject that reasoning.

"Mr. President," they write in their letter, "your use of the autopen appears contrary to the Constitution."

They cite Article 1, section 7 which states very plainly that before a bill passed by the House and Senate can become a law, it be presented to the president. "If he approves, he shall sign it..."

The cite dissenting views in the Office of Legal Counsel document, raising doubts about the constitutionality of using an autopen to sign a bill into law.

They point to memoranda from former Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Associate Justice Antonin Scalia. They also quote a memorandum from the Office of Legal Counsel in 1984 concluding that "it was necessary for the President physically to sign the bill in order for it to become a law."

The House members call on President Obama to "commit to ending the practice of using an autopen to sign bills passed by Congress."

The White House stands by its use of the autopen and the legal document that appears to validate its use. And a spokesman told CBS News that Mr. Obama felt no need to re-sign the Patriot Act measure by hand.

Read the letter here (PDF)

  • Mark Knoller On Twitter»

    Mark Knoller is a CBS News White House correspondent.