Majority Rules: Referring to a Republican majority as meaning controlling Congress is no policy breach, even if the reality is more complicated

The complainant, Constantine Kritsonis, zeroed in on one word in Neil Macdonald’s column on the new political reality in the United States after the mid-term elections. Mr. Macdonald said in passing that the Republicans now controlled Congress. Not so, said the complainant. They have a majority and that’s what Mr. Macdonald should have said. Actually having control is more complicated so the reference is misleading. I did not agree.

COMPLAINT

You took issue with the phrasing of a line in an analysis column about the results of the mid-term elections in the United States. The column was written by Washington correspondent Neil Macdonald and it dealt with the new reality of the U.S. Senate where Republicans now hold more than 50 seats in the 100-seat chamber. He referred to the election of Iowa senator Joni Ernst in this way:

On Tuesday night she became the 51st Republican winner in the struggle for the United States Senate, pushing her party over the top and into control of the upper house of Congress.

You believe that using the word “control” rather than the phrase “has a majority” is inaccurate and would leave Canadians with a false impression of the state of play in the Senate:

The only reasonable definition of Republican ‘control’ of the U.S. senate is being able to unilaterally pass their desired legislation. As Republicans control less than 60% of the senate seats, Democrats can filibuster draft legislation, blocking its passage. Therefore the Republicans do not ‘control’ the senate. The proper wording is: Republicans have a ‘majority’ in the senate.

You were concerned Canadians would be misled by this article and asked that CBC News issue a correction.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Jack Nagler, the Director of Journalistic Public Accountability and Engagement for CBC News, replied. He told you that the “use of the word ‘control’ in this context is well understood to mean having a majority of the seats.” He added that the Republicans would have “further control” if they had won 60% of the seats, but that Mr. Macdonald’s story was “absolutely fine as is.”

REVIEW

I have to say I agree with Mr. Nagler in this case. Mr. Macdonald wrote his analysis focusing on Joni Ernst, the new senator from Iowa, because she had used a rather powerful image in the course of the campaign to prove she would be tough on wasteful spending, among other things:

Ernst is the Iowa populist who bragged in election ads about castrating hogs as a young farm girl. By virtue of that, she said, she can be relied upon to “cut pork” once elected.

The piece is mostly an analysis of Ernst’s positions and appeal and an overview of the state of Republican and U.S. politics as a result of the mid-term elections. The mention of control is a passing reference to her election. It is not a discussion of upcoming legislation, but clearly a reference to the newly won majority.

Your expectation of one word to capture the nuance of American political process is unrealistic. You assert that there is only one reasonable way to interpret the use of the word “control” in this context. I don’t think that is true, nor is it completely relevant. It indicates what is the fact – the Republican party now (or will in January) control a majority of seats.

You point out in your correspondence that Canadians would understand control and majority to be the same because of the Canadian political system. As much as they would give it a lot of thought in the context of this piece, I agree that they would read it, and likely understand it, in that way. You fear that readers would think that this means, as in the Canadian context, the Republicans could force legislation to pass, and this is not the case. I don’t necessarily think that is the inference or conclusion. Mr. Macdonald is telegraphing that the Republicans have a majority and that has shifted power to that party.

The fact that U.S. politics are more complex and there are other ways to defeat legislation is interesting, and could be important. When and if it is, I expect CBC News will cover events in the U.S. Congress and provide the information necessary for Canadians to understand the dynamics of the system.

In this case, there is no inaccuracy and no violation of policy.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman