"A Law-Making Mill:" The Hopper, The House, and Agrarian America

Bill Hopper/tiles/non-collection/8/8-4-hopper.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives 
About this object
A linguistic link to the idea of an agrarian society, the hopper is one of the first stops for new legislation.
A basket, a hopper, a bin. All new legislation has its start here, a container located on the rostrum in the House Chamber. At the end of every legislative day the Clerk of the House collects the bills and assigns each one a number. From there, the bills are referred to committee by the Speaker with the aid of the Parliamentarian. The story of how the hopper got its name speaks to the nation’s agrarian roots and the legislative process.

The term hopper, used to describe the act of leaping, dates to the 14th century. A century later it evolved to refer to the entry bin of a grain machine, since the grain would “hop” around as it was poured into the bin. From there, the connection between the grain machine and making laws is understandable. The hopper represents the initial phase of a bill’s journey toward refinement, or final passage, much like grain when processed into flour. The co-opting of the term hopper fit neatly within the context of an agrarian society, and 19th- and 20th-century American lawmakers, a significant percentage of whom had agricultural backgrounds, likely could have appreciated the analogy between grain and bills.

Grain/legislation metaphors are sprinkled throughout the Congressional Record. “Let us have an end of tumbling every legislative grist into the appropriation hopper,” Representative John Hanna of Indiana said in 1879, “to be ground out by the use of burrs and ill-adapted and ill-adjusted to the purposes of general legislation.” On legislation regarding the Isthmian Canal Commission (later responsible for control of the Panama Canal Zone), Representative Francis Newlands of Nevada remarked in 1900, “A certain amount of brute force is required in order to put this bill into the legislative hopper. When it comes out of the hopper in nine months hence, for it will take that time, we then hope it will be a perfected product.”

Representative Thomas Lindsay Blanton/tiles/non-collection/8/8-4-Blanton_loc.xml Image courtesy of Library of Congress Representative Thomas Lindsay Blanton of Texas is the source of the earliest known reference to the hopper in the Congressional Record.
While metaphorical usage of the word “hopper” abounded in turn-of-the-century speeches, the House referred to the physical location where bills were placed for consideration as the “basket.” “The Chair desires to call the attention of members of the House to the fact that some members are inadvertently placing bills in the basket without noting their names on the bills, making it impossible for the Clerk to give due credit,” Speaker of the House David Henderson of Iowa said on the House Floor in 1902.

By the 1920s, however, Members of the House began to refer to a physical “hopper.” The earliest known reference in the Congressional Record came from Representative Thomas Lindsay Blanton of Texas in 1924. “Why, I learn that my good friend from Mississippi [Mr. Collier] has just this afternoon dropped into the hopper, where House bills are introduced, his bill to construct a $250,000 post-office building in Jackson, Miss.”

After that it became common for Representatives to mention the hopper. However, there is no clear indication in the many volumes of House precedents as to when the term exactly took hold. But the protean nature of the hopper’s entry into legislative language can be summed up by a line from Cannon’s Precedents. “It is apparent, therefore, that the introduction or presentation of bills and resolutions is governed in some instances by the practice of the House rather than by express rule.”

Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed. OED Online (Oxford University Press, 1989), http://dictionary.oed.com/; Allan G. Bogue et. al., “Members of the House of Representatives and the Process of Modernization, 1789–1960,” Journal of American History 63 (September 1976): 275–302; Congressional Record, House, 45th Cong., 3rd sess. (8 February 1879): 1136; Congressional Record, House, 51st Cong., 1st sess. (11 February 1890): 1220; Congressional Record, House, 56th Cong. 1st sess. (2 May 1900): 5011; Congressional Record, House, 57th Cong., 1st sess. (18 January 1902): 739; Congressional Record, House, 68th Cong., 1st sess. (22 January 1924): 1286; Clarence Cannon, Cannon’s Precedents of the House of Representatives of the United States including to provisions of the Constitution (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1935–1941).