Bill seeks Year 2000 compliance

Rep. John Tanner (D-Tenn.) is considering introducing legislation that would require businesses and individuals exchanging electronic information with the federal government to be Year 2000-compliant.

The legislation would have the effect of setting a standard for how companies and individuals represent dates in electronic documents. The standard would most likely be an eight-digit field, with four digits used to represent the year, which is a standard that the National Institute of Standards and Technology recommended in March for federal agencies to use.

Setting a standard is necessary, Tanner said, to avoid the possibility of corporations using different date-field standards after their computer systems have been reprogrammed to be Year 2000-compliant.

With the federal government moving increasingly toward electronic commerce and transfers of electronic documents, different date representations run the risk of creating computer errors or malfunctions.

"If this [Year 2000 problem] is as serious as I am hearing, then I'm pretty sure that not taking action would be a dereliction of duty in this case," Tanner said last week during a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Technology.

Tanner's suggestion drew support from most of the witnesses, which included representatives from computer companies, technology consultants and the government.

"I think we need to be proactive on this whole issue," said Barry Ingram, the chief technology officer at Electronic Data Systems Corp. "If we don't set the standard, then who is going to set it? Are we going to be reactionary? Is Europe going to come in and set it? If we don't do it now, then when are we going to do it?"

Meanwhile, Ingram said, agencies should begin to include as a requirement in current requests for proposals language that makes Year 2000 compliance mandatory.

He also suggested similar language should be included in appropriations bills for fiscal 1997.

Rep. Constance Morella (R-Md.), chairwoman of the subcommittee, also favored legislation mandating a standard. "Maybe putting something in legislation like [a standard] will make people think about" the Year 2000 problem and act, she told FCW.

But legislation dictating standards will run into stiff opposition.

"I believe self-interest is the strongest force for change and survival the strongest inducement," said Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.). "I'm one who is reluctant to pass a law with a new regulation unless it is absolutely necessary.... We can pass a law, but that doesn't mean everyone will get the message" that the Year 2000 is a problem.

Resistance will come from the private sector as well.

"We think that if there should be standards, we'd like to see that done by industry," said Barbara McDuffie, program director of solution programs for IBM Corp.

The subcommittee also raised for the first time the possibility that Congress could provide some funding for agencies in reprogramming their systems. Morella, whose district includes computer corporations and thousands of federal employees, said she "thinks it is a good idea" to provide agencies with funding.

"If an agency needs the money, they should request it," she said. Agencies could ask for "a contingency fund where they would show what they need the money for, or they could say `such sums as is necessary' that could be put into the language."

Morella asked Social Security Administration officials if the agency needed any more money to finish its $30 million Year 2000 reprogramming effort, and Dean Mesterharm, the deputy commissioner for systems at SSA, said the agency would be able to cover the costs.

"I certainly expected them to say that they needed more," Morella said. "But we still need to make sure we're giving the funding that is necessary for these agencies to make the changes."

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