White House mulls Year 2000 legislation

In the wake of a report showing most agencies still far behind in reprogramming computers for the Year 2000 problem, the Clinton administration said last week it may seek legislation that would give some agencies a stronger role in overseeing the millennium fix for service contractors, insurance co

In the wake of a report showing most agencies still far behind in reprogramming computers for the Year 2000 problem, the Clinton administration said last week it may seek legislation that would give some agencies a stronger role in overseeing the millennium fix for service contractors, insurance companies, financial institutions and others.

John Koskinen, who this month assumed the chair of the President's Year 2000 Conversion Council, has begun canvassing federal agencies to explore the depths of the Year 2000 problem. He said if he learns that agencies need legislation to help them cope with fixing computers, Congress is poised to act on it.

"I think that it's clear that the Congress is prepared to provide whatever support we need, and if we need legislation to bring the contractors in line, I'm prepared to seek it," Koskinen said.

The fear among many in the federal government is that non-Year 2000-compliant data from service providers and other third parties to agencies may corrupt federal databases that are already Year 2000-compliant.

As such, Koskinen said special Year 2000 legislation, if needed, might be patterned after a bill now awaiting President Clinton's signature. If signed into law, the bill would give the Office of Thrift Supervision and the National Credit Union Administration more authority to examine the Year 2000 compliance of the companies that work with thrifts and credit unions.

Koskinen said the legislation would be agency-specific, but he declined to name which agencies might need legislation.

Rep. Constance Morella (R-Md.), chairwoman of the House Science Committee's Technology Subcommittee, said she will "support whatever legislation is necessary to get the Year 2000 work done."

One agency of particular concern is the Health Care Financing Administration, which manages Medicare through 70 contractors operating at some 60 sites. About one-quarter of the contractors have yet to assess the extent of the problem in the computers that process Medicare's medical bills, according to HCFA. Koskinen said he will meet with HCFA officials this week.

"Legislation would be an extremely useful step toward giving the agency the additional controls it needs in order to effectively get contractors to address Year 2000 compliance," said Gary Christoph, HCFA's chief information officer.

Bob Cohen, vice president of the Information Technology Association of America, questioned the Office of Management and Budget's strategy. "I think that the marketplace rather than legislation is the best way to bring the proper solutions to HCFA or any other government agency on Year 2000," he said.

Meeting With Tier One

Koskinen also plans to meet with the six agencies that appear on the so-called Tier One in OMB's Year 2000 quarterly report. These agencies— the departments of Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Transportation, Labor and the U.S. Agency for International Development— have shown "insufficient progress" in fixing their computers.

Previously on the Tier One list were the Agriculture Department and the Office of Personnel Management. Those two agencies were moved to Tier Two, which comprises agencies that show "evidence of progress but also has concerns."

The Defense Department also was placed in Tier Two. Rep. Stephen Horn (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Government Management, Information and Technology, said DOD is so far behind in fixing its computers that it deserves a lower rank.

"At its current rate, DOD will complete only 36 percent of its mission-critical systems on time. How can OMB possibly say that DOD has 'evidence of adequate progress?' I am baffled and disturbed by OMB's casual attitude toward DOD's Year 2000 problem," Horn said.

Speaking last week at an industry forecast conference, outgoing acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Command, Control, Communications and Intelligence Anthony Valletta said Horn's projection is based on a "linear" progression for fixing the Year 2000 problem when, in fact, DOD is fixing systems at a geometric rate.

Valletta said DOD will have 98 percent of its systems fixed by the end of 1998, giving the agency all of 1999 to undertake what he called the "mother of all tests."

OMB also reported that the cost to fix the computers have risen from $3.9 billion to $4.7 billion. For more information on OMB's report, go to www.fcw.com.

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