Hill, OMB clash over Y2K progress

With the deadline for fixing the Year 2000 computing problem less than 30 months away Congress and the Clinton administration sharply disagree on the federal government's level of preparedness.

Testifying before a joint House committee hearing last week Sally Katzen administrator of the Office of Management and Budget's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs said the Year 2000 problem would become a "non-event" by the time Jan. 1 2000 rolls around. Congress has charged OMB with creating a federal Year 2000-compliance strategy and monitoring agencies' progress in getting their computer systems ready for the turn of the century. "We are confident that we will finish that work " Katzen said.

But congressional leaders continue to express skepticism regarding the administration's projected schedule and cost estimates for getting the government's computers ready for the Year 2000.

"The timetables are neither viable nor realistic " said Rep. Constance Morella (R-Md.) chairwoman of the House Science Committee's Subcommittee on Technology.

Rep. Stephen Horn (R-Calif.) chairman of the Committee on Government Reform and Oversight's Government Management Information and Technology Subcommittee meanwhile called for President Clinton to use the "bully pulpit" to underscore the importance of the problem. "We need him to awaken the nation to this serious situation " Horn said.

The Year 2000 problem stems from the two-digit date field used in many computer systems. At the turn of the century those computers will interpret 2000 as 1900 a situation that will result in inaccurate date-based calculations and possibly disrupt the running of numerous government programs.

Much of the disagreement between the Hill and the administration is focused on a recently published OMB status report on federal agencies' Year 2000 efforts (cio.fed.gov/yr2krev.htm). The OMB document was the main subject of the joint hearing last week of Morella's and Horn's subcommittees.

The report the first in a series of quarterly updates to be compiled by OMB boosted the administration's Year 2000 cost estimate by about 20 percent from $2.3 billion to $2.8 billion. The report also showed that 18 of the 24 agencies were in the assessment phase as of May 15 the deadline for agencies to supply OMB with information.

Katzen said the report indicated that "agencies have made a good start." She said most agencies are on schedule and have completed or will shortly complete their assessment of the Year 2000 problem. She said many agencies have begun to renovate their systems and noted that no mission-critical systems are reported behind schedule. She added that an "enormous amount of hard work" remains to be done.

Morella however said she is concerned that the revised $2.8 billion cost projection is "a significant understatement" of the problem and suggested that agencies are not "allowing adequate time for the validation of converted systems." She cited the Transportation Department which has set a December 1999 deadline for validating and implementing converted systems.

And Horn said the report that 18 of 24 agencies are in assessment indicates that agencies are "stuck at the starting gate."

Joel Willemssen director of information resources management at the General Accounting Office's Accounting and Information Management Division also questioned OMB's interpretation of the report. OMB he said "would seem to imply that there is no cause for alarm. We don't share that view."

Willemssen said he is concerned that agencies are "leaving little or no time for unanticipated schedule delays." He said the report showed that six of 24 agencies were not scheduled to complete their assessment work by OMB's June deadline.

He said he also doubts whether department secretaries deputy secretaries and program managers "believe this [Year 2000] is a high priority." This contention drew a heated response from Katzen who said Cabinet secretaries have spoken on the issue and that top federal managers are "fully aware of the importance of this issue. I do not think it is accurate to say agency heads are not aware."

Morella and Horn urged Katzen to encourage President Clinton to speak out on the Year 2000 issue. Morella meanwhile said the House is working on language in the Treasury and Postal appropriations bill that would require federal agencies to purchase only Year 2000-compliant products. Such a requirement already is stipulated in an interim rule in the Federal Acquisition Regulation made earlier this year.

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