- By Margret Johnston
- May 23, 1999
The question people most often ask Sen. Robert Bennett, chairman of the Senate's Special Committee on the Year 2000 Computer Problem, is a logical one.
"Are we going to be all right come Jan. 1?"
He is asked that question all the time—from other members of Congress, constituents, commentators and clergymen. On "The McLaughlin Group," the fast-paced political talk show, host John McLaughlin asked the question and seemed to want to add, "Give me the answer quickly so I can cut to a commercial." Bennett tried, but the mild-mannered Republican from Utah finds it extremely difficult to deliver his response to the complicated question in anything that resembles a sound bite.
In the past year, Bennett, who admits he has become obsessed with the Year 2000 computer problem, has been sounding the alarm more proactively than just about any other member of Congress. At times he has had to walk a fine line. He prefers people to view him more as a Paul Revere—gallant and sincere—rather than a Chicken Little.
Since being named chairman of the special committee last year, Bennett has spoken about the issue to the National Press Club and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, to name a few. He was an early supporter of the appointment of a Year 2000 czar, and he spearheaded an international conference on Year 2000 that took place in Brussels, Belgium, last December. And, of course, he has been active on the Hill. He sponsored a successful bill to make it easier for companies to share information about the bug. And in March, less than a year after taking over as chairman of the special committee, Bennett and vice chairman Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) delivered a comprehensive report assessing the impact of the problem. "The thing that was most frustrating about this in the beginning, and it's still frustrating to a lesser degree, is that there was no place you could go to find out what was going on," Bennett said. "There was no repository of hard data about Y2K. And I said, 'If we do nothing else in the committee, we are going to become a repository of accurate information about this problem.' "
Bennett said the report is the most comprehensive ever undertaken on the state of readiness in seven sectors, including the utility, health care, transportation and financial industries. It gives an overview of the Year 2000 situation in each of those seven sectors and then dissects each to further discuss major initiatives and readiness, exposing vulnerabilities in nearly every area.
Bennett calls the report a work in progress. "We will have another report later in the year that might be quite different in the conclusions that it draws," he said.
Bennett said he believes the special committee, which is set to disband in February, has accomplished its goals.
Bennett's agenda is not what he might have expected when he became chairman of the Banking Committee's Financial Institutions and Technology Subcommittee. But that job led him to recognize that technologies such as smart cards and digital signatures deserved more attention from Congress.
Just as Congress started waking up to the Year 2000 problem, then-Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.), the Banking Committee chairman, appointed Bennett chairman of the special Year 2000 committee so he could "wallow in this issue," Bennett said.
Now Bennett is in the hot seat when people ask the burning question about Year 2000 readiness."In very general terms, is the United States going to be 'ready'? The answer is probably yes," he said.But he has advised Americans to take precautionary steps such as obtaining statements of their financial holdings and preparing as they would for a severe storm. There will be problems in certain parts of the country despite the government's efforts to head them off, he warned.
"For example, the health care industry appears to be in pretty good shape in large, well-financed suburban hospitals where the majority of Americans get their health care," he said. "But if you are in a rural area where you have a hospital or clinic that is very much at the end of the line technologically as well as physically, you could have a problem."
Bennett credited the country's preparedness to not handing the problem over to a committee of lawyers. "I don't mean to run down lawyers, but lawyers are trained to think in terms of precedent," he explained. "Entrepreneurs have to think in terms of the future, and I'm an entrepreneur."
Before entering the Senate, Bennett was chief executive officer of the company now known as the Franklin Covey Co., which makes notebook-style planners for busy people. So he actually has a lot of experience keeping track of the time and date. He also has little patience for any manager who fails to take the lead to address the Year 2000 problem.
"I do understand, having been a CEO, that the very best way to make sure that your computer problems don't get solved is for the CEO to ignore them," Bennett said.