WASHINGTON -- As far back as 1996, still something of the Dark Ages for Y2K awareness, Congress had a scold when it came to "the millennium bug": Maryland Rep. Constance A. Morella.
An "impending crisis," the Montgomery County Republican said in 1996. "The deadline we face is unforgiving, and time is running out," Morella said in 1997. "The mother of all computer glitches," she proclaimed in a 1998 radio address.
More than three years and $106 billion later, things are looking rosy enough that public fears of terrorist strikes appear to outweigh doomsday scenarios of crippling computer failures. And many in the nation's capital credit Morella -- along with a few others in Congress -- for sounding the warning bell early and often.
`Bottom line was correct'
"On occasion, they may have been a little hyperbolic but their bottom line was correct: These problems weren't going to solve themselves," said John Koskinen, chairman of the president's council on the Y2K conversion. "Even in the government, and certainly in the private sector, there were a lot of people who didn't think it would be that big a problem."
Starting in 1996, Morella and Steve Horn, a California Republican, held hearings on the inability of computer software to recognize the year 2000. Officials overseeing air traffic controllers, energy utilities, banks, Medicare, the Postal Service and many other agencies came before the congressional technology subcommittees each led.
As they issued agency-by-agency report cards, Horn's sharp pronouncements caused particular discomfort among many administration officials -- at one point, he predicted the Federal Aviation Administration would take until the year 2020 to become compliant. But Morella, an amiable 68-year-old former literature professor, was almost equally hard on what she considered a lackadaisical federal approach.
Vice President Al Gore, the administration's most visible technophile, consistently distanced himself from the issue -- perhaps, Morella suggested recently, because he was afraid that it could end disastrously.
Although the Social Security Administration was leading an ad hoc government group, the government did not name a senior official to oversee Y2K policy until Koskinen was appointed in February 1998. A special Senate panel led by Robert F. Bennett of Utah and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut did not start until a few months later.
The federal government has spent about $8.5 billion to rewrite millions of lines of software and, in some cases, to scrap older computer equipment for new when that proved more efficient. Private industry and state, federal and local governments have spent more than $106 billion, according to a recent Commerce Department study.
Those figures could have been smaller had action been taken earlier, Morella said. But the report cards are starting to read more like a student headed for the dean's list. Overall, a B-plus, Horn said in the final gradings.
Chicken Little, Pollyanna
Morella said, "We're between Chicken Little, who said the sky is falling, and Pollyanna, who says don't worry about a thing."
On the brink of 2000, U.S. bank vaults sit flush with excess cash reserves that had been procured by financiers who wrongly predicted a run on paper money. There is no scarcity of bottled water, gasoline or canned food on the shelves.
It is important not to overstate Morella's influence on the issues she oversees as chairwoman of a House subcommittee on technology. Her name cannot be found, for example, among the authors of legislation limiting liability of firms for year 2000 problems -- a feather in the cap of high-tech firms. But her work in sounding the alarm is widely lauded.
`One of the heroines'
"When we were having a very, very difficult time getting people in Congress to pay attention to the issue, she devoted a lot of time to it," said Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America, which represents 26,000 software, Internet and information technology companies. "Connie Morella is certainly one of the heroines of the Y2K story."
New Year's Eve, Morella intends to spend a few hours at the command post near the White House run by Koskinen's council, which will be a nerve center for information about disruptions across the nation and across the globe.
But then, she said, she intends to head back to her Montgomery County home. Just to be safe, she said: "I have my firewood ready. We have our gallons of water, our batteries and our food.
"I really think that's all we're going to need," she said, sounding uncharacteristically confident. "There will be no inconveniences."
Pub Date: 12/30/99