When President Obama signed the fiscal cliff deal into law on Wednesday, January 2, he wasn’t anywhere near the Oval Office, or even the paperwork itself. The Commander in Chief was in Hawaii with his family, enjoying a winter vacation. In a great example of teleworking, President Obama signed the law using an autopen.
An autopen mimics a user’s signature by storing the necessary pen strokes digitally and then using a robot to replicate them. The original signee doesn’t have to be present. By leveraging this technology to sign the new fiscal law, the government avoided the cost of flying the document to Hawaii or the president back to Washington.
The autopen was called into service by the White House staff because of a time crunch:
Obama had taken off for Hawaii to resume his family vacation before the bill was delivered to his office. That gave the White House two options: Go old-school and deliver the bill to Obama in Hawaii via an airborne courier, or break out the autopen. Probably because the law was so time-sensitive, it chose the latter.
It's the third time Obama's used an autopen to sign a bill into law, per NPR — the first was in May of 2011, when he became the first president to do so by signing a Patriot Act extension from a G8 summit in France, the second was in November of 2011 from Indonesia.
Read Here's How Obama's Autopen Works on Mashable.
Given that this is the third time the president has used the autopen to sign a law, it’s likely that the method will become more commonplace, assuming there is no Constitutional wrangling. The president is one of the busiest men on the planet, and the autopen allows him to perform part of his job — signing into law the bills he has reviewed and approved — while he is somewhere other than Washington. That kind of flexibility is invaluable, especially with urgent legislation.
Anticipating that the technology would be controversial, the government cleared use of the autopen years before it was first used.
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.”
Read Making Legislative History, With Nod From Obama and Stroke of an Autopen on The New York Times.