Clinton signs $US3.4 billion Y2K budget

The massive budget bill passed by the US Senate today and subsequently signed into law by President Clinton contains $US3.4 billion emergency spending for fixing year 2000 problems in government computer systems.

The funding, including about $1.1 billion earmarked for Department of Defense systems and computers that support national security, is in addition to appropriations that government agencies have been granted for other information technology procurement, according to congressional Republicans who spoke during a conference call about Congress' Year 2000 initiatives.

The emergency appropriation is slightly more than the $3.25 billion requested by the Clinton administration last month after the Office of Budget and Management (OBM) warned that the government's cost of fixing the problem continues to grow. It's now estimated at $5.4 billion, according to OBM, which also said last month that seven departments are critically behind schedule in fixing their systems.

But the Republican representatives said the $3.4 billion emergency funding still isn't enough. The allocated amount is an underestimation of what the actual costs will be, said Representative Constance A. Morella, a Republican from Maryland.

The Republicans also expressed concern over what they said is a lack of public awareness about the computer date problem and complained that the administration has "received failing grades" for its efforts to lead attempts to correct the problem.

"I still have the concern that the government-wide estimate (of compliance) is misstated and milestones are overly optimistic," Morella said. "We need more accountability, and we need to stress a contingency plan. It's important that people don't panic."

The key milestone Morella referred to is the March 1999 deadline for all government agencies to be year 2000 compliant which was set by the President's Council on the Year 2000 Conversion. Morella tried to force agencies to be more open about the progress of their year 2000 fixes by sponsoring a bill that would have required agencies to report monthly. The bill passed the House, but died when the Senate failed to consider it.

The representatives hailed the recent passage of the Readiness Disclosure Act, a bill designed to encourage companies to share information about year 2000 preparations by freeing them from certain liabilities. They also noted that the appointment of the President's Council on the Year 2000 Conversion and the endorsement of "Good Samaritan behaviour" are important steps taken over the last year. But they said there would be even more focus on the problem in the next Congress.

One area they plan to address deals with a business' or an individual's liability, said Representative Christopher Cox, a Republican from California. The goal is to protect companies and programmers who make earnest efforts to fix year 2000 problems from being wiped out by a lawsuit if their efforts aren't finished in time or if they fail, Cox said.

Programmers and others who try to fix their systems should not feel the need to hire lawyers before they get started, Cox said. The legislators also said they plan to write legislation to explore consumer protections, Cox added.

(Additional reporting by Cheri Paquet, IDG News Service, San Francisco bureau.)

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