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Abstract

The conduct of the elected representatives of the Eleventh Congressional District of Pennsylvania in dealing with two fires at two separate times permits greater understanding of the transition zone between inaction and action in congressional policy making. In 1984, Congress passed a bill that provided funds to relocate the citizens of Centralia, Pennsylvania, while ignoring the citizens in Laurel Run, Pennsylvania. Both communities were plagued by structural damage from the coal fires burning under their towns. In contrast, citizens from both communities had received government assistance in 1966 in the form of Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) grants during earlier flare-ups of both fires. Both Pennsylvania senators and the Eleventh Congressional District representative all had less seniority in the 1980s than had been the case for the individuals holding those seats in the 1960s. Divided government made policy influence less certain and consensus more difficult to achieve in the 1980s, and the range of policy templates available for adaptation was more restricted in the 1980s. In 1966, a senior representative operating within a solid majority government could convince officials at HUD to adapt urban renewal legislation to assist constituents whose houses were structurally unsound because of the fires. In 1984, the policy templates had changed to toxic waste and environmental protection, affording inexperienced representatives working in a divided government no suitable argument to justify a bureaucratic solution to the coal fires. The resulting legislative-policy solution was limited to the constituents in acute distress in Centralia.

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