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Congress committee targets Y2K

The special committee will recommend legislation and oversee government and private institutions that deal with the Year 2000 problem.

In an effort to focus more congressional clout on the Year 2000 problem, a special Senate committee has been created to address the issue.

According to Senate staff members, the new committee will recommend legislation and oversee government and private institutions that deal with the Year 2000 problem.

Although the three Democrats and four Republicans who will sit on the select panel have yet to be picked, Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) has been appointed by the U.S. Senate to lead the committee, his office confirmed yesterday.

On spring recess with the rest of Congress, Bennett couldn't be reached for comment.

The Year 2000 problem, or the millennium bug, stems from shortcuts taken by computer programmers in the 1970s and 1980s, who tried to save valuable computer memory by abbreviating dates to the last two digits. Many computers still use this two-digit formula and are in danger of crashing when they enter the next century because they will interpret the year 2000 as a meaningless 00.

If computers are not reprogrammed, the consequences could be calamitous. Experts say the bug could shut down companies, jam communications, and even freeze world trade if it is not eradicated.

The idea to form a select committee dedicated to the problem surfaced in Washington months ago as a number of congress members found themselves addressing the same issue at a host of different committee hearings, including those sparked by the establishment of the President's Year 2000 Council, last month.

In a recent interview with NEWS.COM, the Clinton administration's Year 2000 czar John Koskinen, also chairman of the newly established council, said he supports such a committee, but thinks committees responsible for specific areas of government should also stay focused on the issue.

A representative of the council today said the new Senate committee is a welcomed show of interest and resolve by Congress to concentrate efforts on the issue. "Congress has been very helpful in raising public awareness on the issue," said Jack Gribben, spokesman for the Year 2000 Council. "We expect this new committee will continue raising awareness, especially if it focuses on organizations the government does business with."

Bennett has long been an advocate for raising Y2K awareness on Capitol Hill, particularly as chair of the financial services and technology subcommittee of the Senate Banking Committee, where he has held numerous hearings addressing the issues.

The Utah senator has also successfully pushed through Congress a bill that would require federal financial regulators to provide education to financial institutions along with model approaches for solving the Year 2000 bug. It also boosts the regulatory authority of the Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS) and the National Credit Union Administration to examine the operations of service corporations or other entities which perform services for thrifts and credit unions.

According to a recently released federal report, the cost to rid the millennium bug from federal systems will be $800 million more than expected, skyrocketing from an original estimate of $3.9 billion to $4.7 billion.

Further details on the Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem are expected to be released when Congress returns from recess in two weeks, a representative for Bennett's office said.