Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings on the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. A friend sent me an article from The Hill entitled “McConnell recesses Senate amid Kavanaugh hearings” and asked me to explain the “two hour rule” mentioned as a potential tactic for delaying the hearings. Fan of Senate parliamentary procedure that I am, I decided to take a look.
The “two hour rule” is actually Rule XXVI, section 5(a) of the Standing Rules of the Senate, which basically states that a committee cannot hold meetings that run past two hours after the Senate has been called into session, nor can they meet anytime after 2pm, unless said committee has the consent of both the majority leader and the minority leader, unanimous consent from the Senate, or the Senate adopts a privileged motion allowing the meeting. This rule was originally put into place in 1946 to stop the Senate from getting too bogged down with committee business (and committee logistics), and to help increase attendance for meetings of the full Senate. Since committee business is rather important, consent is usually granted for committees to meet when they need to meet. Thus, the two hour rule rarely gets called into play, because committees not meeting would be to everyone’s detriment.
In the cold, impartial eyes of the Senate Rules, the Kavanaugh hearings are nothing more or less than a series of very lengthy committee meetings. According to that article, those meetings are allowed to proceed past both the two-hours-after-the-Senate-was-called-into-session-for-the-day deadline and the 2pm deadline because of a consent agreement between Majority Leader McConnell and Minority Leader Schumer. But if any party in that agreement changed their mind and withdrew consent for the Judiciary Committee to continue meeting past the two-hour limit, or after 2pm, the hearings would be halted immediately until the next scheduled meeting day.
Insofar as I can tell, here’s what happened to precipitate that Hill article: During the previous days, the hearings (contained within meetings of the Senate Judiciary Committee) were allowed to proceed past the two hour rule due to a consent agreement between McConnell and Schumer. Around midday on Wednesday, Schumer attempted to halt the hearings by withdrawing from the consent agreement, which should’ve forced all committee meetings to cease after they hit the two-hour mark. However, McConnell countered with a procedural maneuver of his own, and called for the entire rest of the Senate to be recessed, subject to his call to return (which is one of the powers given to the majority leader, alas), thus making the two hour rule completely irrelevant. To use an analogy, this is roughly the equivalent of cancelling an entire day of school for most of the students just so one teacher never has to stop teaching their first period class. Once the teacher (and the students stuck in that endless lecture) are released from any other time commitments, that first period class can go on for as long as the teacher wants. So basically the call to halt the hearings via the two hour rule was thwarted that day, and I don’t think the Democrats tried it again later on. But… it is certainly an interesting procedural trick to keep an eye on in the future!