House mulls FY '97 funding

House lawmakers say they will reconsider providing funds to agencies as early as fiscal 1997 to fix Year 2000 software problems in computer systems.

New appropriations would contradict positions Congress and the Office of Management and Budget took earlier this year, when both insisted that agencies pay for system conversions from already tight program budgets. OMB is sticking to that position.

Reps. Steven Horn (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Government Reform and Oversight Subcommittee on Government Management, Information and Technology, and Constance Morella (R-Md.), chairwoman of the House Science Subcommittee on Technology, are leading the movement to find money. Both committees have held hearings on the Year 2000 problem.

Horn last week called on agencies to request Year 2000 funds in their fiscal 1998 budgets if they can prove they need help. The budgets will be submitted to OMB next month.

"In the next budget, agencies need to be asking for it," Horn said.

His comments were made at a press conference during which he distributed a report grading agencies on their efforts to plan for the Year 2000. More than half of the agencies received a failing grade (see related article, page 12).

The Year 2000 problem stems from the two-digit-year date fields found in software, hardware and firmware. Systems with these fields will not be able to deal with the "00" that will appear with the dawn of 2000. The problem can cause systems to fail or introduce corrupt data into other systems.

Staff on both subcommittees have been working closely for weeks with the House Appropriations Committee on funding Year 2000 conversions for those agencies that have exhausted all other means to pay for analyzing, fixing and testing computer systems. The committee reportedly is aware of the problem and is open to finding money.

House Appropriations Committee staff members could not be reached for comment.

The Senate, however, is not yet convinced of the severity of the problem and the need for extra money. There has not been any interaction between oversight committees and the Senate Appropriations Committee on the topic.

"Personally, this isn't a throw-money-at-the-problem issue," one Senate staff member said. "This is just too late for many agencies."

A spokeswoman for the Senate Appropriations Committee said the panel has not discussed Year 2000 funding.

Nevertheless, Morella, Horn and others are pushing forward.

Agencies should get assistance in appropriations because if they do not, the consequences - which would include the shutdown of programs - "won't be tolerated," Morella told Federal Computer Week. If agencies can prove the need for money, Congress should provide it through emergency fiscal 1997 appropriations after the election, she said.

But Congress will not be willing to pay the total cost of fixing federal computers, which has been pegged at as much as $30 billion by The Gartner Group, a Stamford, Conn.-based market research firm. To get money, Morella said agency managers will have to show that they have squeezed as much out of program budgets as possible to pay for conversions, that the systems are essential to providing service to the public, what the agency needs to complete the conversion process and that it has met the requirements of the House Treasury and Postal Service fiscal 1997 appropriations bill.

Under that bill, which passed last month, agencies must report to OMB by Nov. 1 on the costs to make computer systems Year 2000-compliant and submit a plan to ensure all future computer equipment purchased will be compliant, together with a timetable for implementing the plan.

Horn said large agencies "with $2 billion budgets" should be able to find enough money to make the conversions out of current program funds. Other agencies would have to "make a legitimate case" before any money would be made available.

However, Bruce McConnell, head of OMB's IT policy staff, is sticking to the office's original position that agencies should not be expecting any funds from Congress.

Nevertheless, OMB has required agencies to include a line item in fiscal 1998 budgets indicating how much money will be needed to cover the cost of converting and testing systems to become Year 2000-compliant.

That requirement could be an exercise in demonstrating how agencies cannot cover the costs, said Wushow "Bill" Chou, deputy assistant secretary for information systems at the Treasury Department, which will have to cope with one of the bigger Year 2000 problems at the Internal Revenue Service.

"That's almost implying that you show how much it will cost so that you can compare it to how little money you have," he said. "It shows that you need more money.... It's just like a gun being put to your head and saying, 'Pay for it.' "

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has pegged its Year 2000 problem at $8.2 million, or about 15 percent of its IT equipment budget.

"That's going to be difficult to find without new appropriations," said Jim Seligman, head of the Office of Information Resources Management at CDC.

Some agencies, however, will not need extra money. The Social Security Administration, which began working on the Year 2000 problem in 1989, told Morella's committee in May that it did not need funding to finish its conversion.

At the U.S. Geological Survey, the cost to convert systems "looks like it won't blow us out of the water," said Ellen Findlay, Year 2000 program manager. "As it stands now, we should be able to cover it." Findlay would not say how much the conversion will cost USGS.

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