The federal government's first business day in 2000 went off without a big glitch yesterday.
After months of preparing for the year 2000 computer problem, the government's offices opened, conducted business as normal and reported no major electronic disruptions.
"Fizzle is good . . . dull is good," Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said.
Social Security sent out more than $30 billion in monthly benefit checks to about 44 million recipients. The Veterans Affairs Department had conducted 276,181 transactions in its regional offices by 1:30 p.m. yesterday and reported no Y2K problems. The Small Business Administration's help desk took only one Y2K-related call out of the 325 that had come in by 2:30 p.m.
By 5 p.m., the president's Y2K adviser, John A. Koskinen, was willing to declare victory. "We can safely say that what was referred to as the Y2K bug has been squashed," he said. He called the government and industry mobilization to fix hundreds of millions of lines of computer software "a wonderful success."
Two years ago, numerous industry experts and several members of Congress doubted the government could pull off one of the largest technology projects in the nation's history. They based their judgments on the government's past experiences, where technology modernization efforts often ran late or the automation did not work as intended.
"I think it is a government success story," Richardson said. "We don't have too many of those."
Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah), chairman of the Senate's special committee on the year 2000 problem, said, "The best-case scenario has come true, which isn't usually the case around here."
The federal government spent $8.4 billion over a five-year period fixing and testing computer systems so that they would correctly interpret "00" as 2000, not 1900, and continue functioning. Overall, the Commerce Department estimated that the nation spent more than $100 billion to avoid the bug's bite.
The Energy Department, Richardson said, estimated that 3 to 5 percent of electric utilities operated equipment that needed Y2K repairs. Without those fixes, he said, 7.5 million Americans "might have lost power" on New Year's Day.
The year 2000 problem also created partnerships that should prove beneficial in the future, he said. Mexico, Venezuela, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, for example, agreed to increase oil production in the event embedded chips shut down refineries and ports, disrupting global oil supplies, he said.
A joint crisis center that Richardson and his Russian counterpart created "is permanent now because of Y2K," he said. Domestically, he added, the department and the nation's utility companies will be able to better coordinate responses to future problems.
Richardson, like almost all Cabinet officers and major agency heads, spent the weekend at emergency command centers on alert for Y2K problems. He went to work at 6 a.m. on Dec. 31, spoke with Russian nuclear and energy officials four times and missed the White House millennium dinner.
Customs Service Commissioner Raymond Kelly stayed at his agency's data center in Newington, Va., until 1:15 a.m. "It was a glorious nonevent," Kelly said. Although he, too, missed the White House dinner, he managed to attend a White House breakfast on New Year's Day.
The rank-and-file also put in long hours for the Y2K weekend. More than 1,000 employees of the Internal Revenue Service, at 525 offices across the country, worked over the weekend, running checks on critical segments of the agency's 51 million lines of code. All IRS offices opened yesterday, glitch-free, IRS spokesman Don Roberts said.
Some agencies even conducted government business over the holiday. The Office of Personnel Management, which administers retirement and health programs for federal workers, took a call Jan. 1 from the daughter of a federal retiree who had passed away. The staff, using computers, began the process of paying life insurance and lump-sum benefits and adjusted the person's health insurance, the agency said.
At a briefing yesterday, Koskinen listed a series of minor problems, such as incorrect date displays and balky systems, that bedeviled agencies and corporations on the first business day of the year.
"We are likely to continue to see glitches pop up here and there in the coming days and weeks, but I think they will be localized and transitory and will not pose a threat to the nation's economy," he said.
Koskinen acknowledged over the weekend that he was surprised that the Y2K glitch had not caused substantial difficulties across the globe. He also fended off suggestions that Y2K had been nothing more than "hype" or that the government had spent too much money trying to minimize the risks.
The government and large companies, he said, "understood that if they didn't fix the systems, they would not be functioning."
CAPTION: "The Y2K bug has been squashed," said presidential adviser John A. Koskinen.