The Forgers of Capitol Hill

Signing members' names to documents is a tricky job, but somebody's got to do it.

President Obama's signature on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which he (physically) signed in 2009. (National Journal)

On a recent Friday afternoon, as she was leaving the Hill for the weekend, a congressional aide suddenly remembered that her parking pass would expire before she came to work the next Monday. She had procrastinated about asking her boss to sign for a new one, and now he'd flown home for the weekend. So, after only a moment's hesitation, she signed his name to the form herself. Or tried to.

(Pete Souza/White House)"It ended up looking like absolute crap," she says. "I used the wrong-colored pen. I used a red pen; we're supposed to use a blue pen. So I had to do the whole thing over."

You might think this would raise suspicions—not only forging a member's signature on a federal document but also botching the job so badly that you have to try again. But nobody on Capitol Hill bats an eye at staffers signing for their bosses; it's part of the daily routine, and, according to the House and Senate Ethics committees, there are no rules prohibiting it. Which comes in handy, for staffers and members alike, because the elected officials' signatures are required on everything from "Dear Colleague" letters to tech-equipment requests. (The idea is that members are held accountable for every action taken by their aides.) And with lawmakers dashing from caucus meetings to committee hearings to floor votes to fundraising call rooms, they'd be hard-pressed to affix their John Hancocks to every document that hits their desks—or their staffers' desks.

So mimicking the boss's signature has become a rite of passage—generally an unexpected one—for many new aides. "It made me uncomfortable at first," another House staffer says, especially when she was asked to sign the monthly payroll form for the first time. What if she messed it up and the staff didn't get paid on time? She asked a former scheduler in the office to trace the congressman's signature on a Post-it note, she says, and then she traced it about a hundred times for practice. She's also learned to make a copy of any blank form before signing it, "just in case I mess up"—even though she's since learned that, in reality, she could probably just print her boss's name in block letters and the form would be approved.

Even so, pretending to be the lawmaker still makes her a bit queasy. "I mean, I know it's our job to help inform the boss and make him look good," she says, "but I wondered how much he actually knew about the things that were being signed."

Not so much is the answer for most members; typically a legislative director or chief of staff is charged with keeping tabs. Some lawmakers do sign particular documents themselves: Last month, many sent personalized congratulatory letters to their colleagues who won reelection, and a few have cribbed a move from President Obama, responding in their own hand to a certain number of constituent letters each week.

Mostly, though, the signing is left to staffers much lower on the totem pole—and they tend to take the task seriously, sometimes to the point of ridiculousness. In one Senate office a few weeks ago, according to an unimpressed colleague, a staff assistant strutted around, bragging about his latest forgery as though it were worthy of the National Portrait Gallery. "This is the most beautiful thing I've ever done," he boasted. "I should frame this."

To some, it may be an art. But art, of course, is subject to criticism—something colleagues are not shy about giving. "Each of them thinks they're very good at it," the Senate staffer says. "They aren't really. The signatures sometimes wildly differ."

The aide who signed her own parking permit could never get her boss's signature down, even though it was one of her first assignments. "I have a degree in art," she says. "I'm pretty good at drawing." But when it came to signing for the boss, "I am so bad that they made me sit there and practice over and over and over again. At one point, I had a collection of Post-it notes, and we were sitting there comparing the swoop of my boss's signature.

"We use a lot of paper in Congress," she quips. "It's probably because we're trying to write our boss's signature."

Why not take another cue from the Oval Office and use an autopen—a machine that mimics a signature? Few congressional offices have one, for a very pragmatic reason: A machine can cost as much as $10,000, a steep price in an era of tight budgets. Until the technology becomes more affordable, it will still be up to staffers to make most official documents official. "I sometimes wonder if voters would be angry that their elected representative doesn't actually sign every document," another Senate staffer says. "But his signature is there." Sort of.