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22 Pens

White House Staff Secretary Lisa Brown describes the role of her office and explains why the President used 22 pens to sign health reform into law.

On Tuesday, the President signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, one of the most significant bills signed into law in the last several decades. Among the many stories generated by the passing of this landmark health reform bill were several that focused on the President using 22 pens to sign the bill into law. The fact that the Staff Secretary handles such bill signings has led a number of people to ask exactly what the Staff Secretary does. While the Staff Secretary can play a public role at the signing of a major bill, Executive Order or international agreement, the lion’s share of the office’s work is invisible to the public.

All of the paper that goes to the President (including, with rare exception, classified memos from the National Security Advisor), goes through the Staff Secretary’s Office. Working with staff throughout the White House, the Office compiles the President’s daily briefing book; reviews and edits briefing and decision memos, circulating them within the White House for input before they go to the President; handles executive orders and bills; and organizes the letters and background reading sent to the President.

The role of the Staff Secretary is often described as the last substantive control point before papers reach the Oval Office.” Does a memo merit the President’s attention given the demands on his time? Does a memo provide the President with the information he needs for a meeting? Are the various aspects of an issue clearly presented for the President’s decision? Are all the relevant views of the President’s senior advisors reflected so he can make a fully informed decision? The Staff Secretary serves as the “honest broker,” ensuring that the paper going to the President is ready for prime time and that no one who should be in the loop is cut out of the process.

The paper ranges from the mundane to the momentous. As of yesterday, President Obama has signed 147 bills into law. While each has significance in its own right, none matches the import of the health reform bill for Americans across the country. As the President said, “this is what change looks like,” and it is why I work for President Obama and why it is an honor to work in this office.

Lisa Brown is Assistant to the President and Staff Secretary