Here's why Joe Biden uses so many different pens to sign executive orders

There's an inky history to the curious presidential tradition.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
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President Joe Biden signed a stack of executive orders on his first day in office. Notice the pen stash in front of him.

Video screenshot by Amanda Kooser/CNET

President Joe Biden didn't waste any time putting pen(s) to paper after Wednesday's inauguration. He's been signing executive orders related to the Paris climate agreement, the coronavirus pandemic and Keystone XL pipeline. And he did so with an entire suite of pens at his disposal.

While Biden used one pen for his first three orders on Wednesday, some viewers noticed him reaching for a series of different pens while signing orders for the US pandemic response on Thursday. The pens then stayed with the orders. 

Why so many pens? It's a tradition with a purpose.

The pens are essentially government souvenirs often given as gifts to commemorate the signing of orders or bills.

In a White House video in 2010, Lisa Brown, White House staff secretary at the time, said she wasn't sure exactly when the tradition started, but that John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson used multiple pens to sign legislation during their terms. It may date back as far as the Franklin D. Roosevelt or Harry Truman administrations.

"The practice is that the president uses a number of pens and then gives the pens to people who worked particularly hard on a bill, who sponsored the bill, who really fought to get it done, or to whom the bill means a great deal," Brown said.

Barack Obama famously used 22 pens to affix his name to the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, in 2010. According to a government transcription of the signing event, he said, "I've got to use every pen, so it's going to take a really long time. I didn't practice." That meant using multiple pens for each of the letters in his name.

Biden had it relatively easy using one pen per order on Thursday, but it could get more complicated when it comes to signing major bills into law later. He might want to start practicing.

Inauguration Day of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in pictures

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