Tech Industry

Senate builds Y2K committee

Senate leaders announce the leadership, members, and agenda of a recently created special committee on the Year 2000 bug.

A bipartisan Senate subcommittee devoted to the Year 2000 bug was announced today in Washington DC by Congressional leaders, who formalized the leadership, members, and agenda of the new body.

As reported earlier by CNET's NEWS.COM, the Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Problem will be chaired by Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah). Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Connecticut) was named vice chair.

Additional members include Sens. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-New York), Jon Kyl (R-Arizona), Jeff Bingaman (D-New Mexico), Susan Collins (R-Maine), and Gordon Smith (R-Oregon).

In an interview today with CNET's NEWS.COM, Sen. Dodd said the committee will not have any legislative authority, but will oversee government and private institutions that deal with the Year 2000 problem. "It will serve as a forum and central place for significant agencies, corporations, and others to ask the significant questions that need to be addressed. I will also act as a bully-pulpit for things that need to be discussed."

Dodd said the committee also will have ex-officio members from other committees, particularly ones that have the authority to appropriate money. He cited Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin's warnings last month about his agency's need for additional funds to fix its computers before the end of the millennium.

"It may cost the U.S. $300 billion to address this problem," he said. "That is half the cost of the Vietnam War, to put it into perspective."

The Y2K 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 will crash when they enter the next century because they will interpret the year 2000 as either 1900 or 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, in February.

Both Bennett and Dodd have been raising the issue on the Senate floor, at various committees, and back in their home states. For example, Dodd held a forum in his state capitol, Hartford, Connecticut, in February on the issue, inviting local financial institutions, state officials, and the public.

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 issue.

Despite earlier efforts, concern has grown that many critical computer systems used in the federal government and in private corporations might not be cleansed of the bug before December 31, 1999.

Dodd said some of the first priorities of the committee will be to look at the critical areas in the nation's infrastructure, such as the electricity grid, water supply system, transportation, financial services, and the defense structure, and see where they stand in their compliance structure.

Another priority will be to understand the international ramifications of the problem. "Many of our industrial partners aren't there yet. Then as you look at the third and fourth world," you see a larger problem, Dodd said.

When asked if the committee will work with the recently created President's Year 2000 Conversion Council, Dodd said yes, but insisted the committee will not become a "government bureaucracy. No czar. We're going to ask the private sector to detail people and solutions" that can help to handle the problem.