Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, was named as a sort of Moses by Senate leaders Tuesday to direct a new committee formed to help the nation flee from the worst of apocalyptic-type plagues they fear from the "year 2000" computer problem.
But as Bennett took the job, he announced that it may already be too late for repentance by for computer-owning businesses and utilities."In fact, the time to solve the entire problem is gone. We do not have enough time," he told a Capitol press conference.
"We have to set our priorities, and say these portions of the Y2K problem have to be solved because they're mission critical - (and) these are ones we will get to if we have enough time . . . but if we don't get to them we'll survive."
The year 2000 problem - also called the "millennium bug" - comes because older computer programs and chips were designed to store only two digits of the four-digit year. So when the year 2000 comes, the "00" will be interpreted as 1900, not 2000.
While that seems like a small problem, Senate leaders said the resulting computer crashes and malfunctions could be truly apocalyptic - possibly bringing power outages, shutting down worldwide communication and crashing financial markets.
So they created the new Senate Select Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem as a central research and warning center for Congress and the nation about different facts of the problem - and Bennett promises numerous hearings quickly.
Bennett said his top worry, for example, is public utilities - which "could cripple us if they're not fixed."
He said, "We have to make sure the power grid operates. But utilities also include such things as clean water . . . The processing and controlling of water purification plants and so on are run by computer," and could easily fail on Jan. 1, 2000.
Next in his order of priority are telecommunications.
"There's already a major national telecommunications firm that has announced to its customers that it will not guarantee a dial tone on any of its telephones outside the United States and certain parts of Europe after Jan. 1, 2000," Bennett said.
The next big worry is transportation.
Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., who will be the top Democrat on the new committee, noted two Federal Aviation Administration officials told a previous hearing Bennett held that "they would not take a flight on Jan. 1, 2000. IBM has indicated its computers may not be able to handle the traffic flows on that date."
Bennett added that besides air traffic, "Truck traffic is monitored by computers. Rail traffic (also has) cars (that) are routed by computers."
He said he also worries about financial services (where bank accounts and credit card powers could disappear), government services (including mailing Social Security checks) and general business services.
For example, "General Motors has done a survey in every one of its manufacturing facilities and found that every one of them could be shut down with Y2K problems."
He noted that estimates to fix the problem nationally are as high as $277 billion and $1.635 trillion globally. He said some economists also warn the problem could trigger a global economic recession or even a depression.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said Bennett was chosen to head the committee because he has long been leading calls for action on the problem and held many hearings on it in a Senate banking subcommittee that he heads.
Lott and Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle called for quick bipartisan action on what they said is a nonpartisan issue. They said Bennett and Dodd are perfect to head it because they are experts on the issue, are friends - and both are even sons of former senators.
Daschle half-joked, "The year 2000 problem represents a once-in-a-millennium opportunity for us to work together across party lines."
Some senators also even referred to the apocalypse itself when talking about the problem - such as Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., a member of the new committee.
"I have no proof that the sun is about to rise on the apocalyptic millennium of which chapter 20 of the Book of Revelation speaks, nor do I have proof that, armed with flood and catastrophe, the Four Horsemen will arrive on Jan. 1, 2000.
"Yet, it is becoming apparent to all of us that a once seemingly innocuous computer glitch relating to how computers recognize dates could wreak worldwide havoc," he said.
He added it could "cause the failure of weapons systems, widespread disruption of business operations, possible misdiagnosis or improper medical treatment . . . and incorrect traffic signals at street corners across the country."
Moynihan added, "Today there are 611 days remaining until Jan. 1, 2000 - too late to lament, still time to act."