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Obama signs healthcare bill with 22 pens. Who started that idea?

Many presidents now sign historic legislation – like the healthcare bill – with multiple pens. Twenty-two isn't even close to the record, in fact.

By Will BuchananContributor / March 24, 2010

A White House staff member sets out the pens that President Obama used to sign the healthcare bill Tuesday. Pens used in signing major pieces of legislation are typically distributed among political allies and friends.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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As President Obama sat down to sign the healthcare bill Tuesday, he remarked, “This is going to take a little while.”

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Mr. Obama then used 22 pens to sign the historic bill. Each pen contributed a letter, or even just half a letter, to his signature. A full minute and 35 seconds elapsed between when the president began and finished.

As he placed the last pen back in the box, the president announced, “We are done.”

Many modern presidents have used multiple pens to sign major pieces of legislation. The moment they leave the president’s hand, these pens become valuable political souvenirs worth hundreds of dollars, at least. Presidents often give them out to political supporters and friends.

Franklin Roosevelt was the first president to use multiple pens to sign legislation. President Truman did so as well, but it was President Lyndon Johnson who used 72 pens to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

More recent presidents, including Ronald Reagan, have done the same. (In fact, during his 2008 campaign for president, Sen. John McCain of Arizona pledged that, if elected, he would sign bills cutting pork and earmark spending with a pen given to him by Mr. Reagan.)

President Bush, however, eschewed the custom. He used only one pen to sign legislation.

Signing pens are occasionally sold on the market. A pen used by Johnson to sign a water bill in 1965 was selling for $499.99 on Ebay Wednesday.

Yesterday’s bill signing was not the first time President Obama used multiple pens to sign legislation. He signed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act last year with seven pens.

Tuesday, Obama kept one pen for himself and two for the archives. The rest of the pens were given out to these supporters, according to POLITICO:

  1. Senate majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada
  2. Sen. Dick Durbin (D) of Illinois
  3. Sen. Max Baucus (D) of Montana
  4. Sen. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa
  5. Sen. Chris Dodd (D) of Connecticut
  6. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California
  7. House majority leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland
  8. House majority whip James Clyburn of South Carolina
  9. Rep. George Miller (D) of California
  10. Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of California
  11. Rep. Sander Levin (D) of Michigan
  12. Rep. John Dingell (D) of Michigan
  13. Rep. Charles Rangel (D) of New York
  14. Vice President Joe Biden
  15. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius
  16. Vicki Kennedy, wife of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy
  17. Nancy-Ann DeParle, director of the White House Office of Health Reform
  18. Phil Schiliro, assistant to the president for legislative affairs
  19. Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association
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