Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan's Letter to the President Concerning the Year 2000 Problem

The following is the full text of Senator Moynihan's "Y2K Problem" Letter to President Bill Clinton. It was sent to the president on July 31, 1996 and subsequently published in the Congressional Record on August 11, 1996. This letter is therefore in the public domain and can be copied and distributed freely.

U.S. Senate, Washington, D.C.

July 31, 1996

The President,
The White House,
Washington, D.C.

Dear Mr. President:

I hope this letter reaches you. I write to alert you to a problem which could have extreme negative economic consequences during your second term: The Year 2000 Time Bomb. This has to do with the transition of computer programs from the 20th to the 21st century.

The main computer languages from the '50's and '60's such as COBOL, FORTRAN, and Assembler were designed to minimize consumption of computer memory by employing date fields providing for only six digits. The date of this letter in "computerese," for example, is 96-07-31, The century designation "19" is assumed.

The problem is that many computer programs will read January 1, 2000 as January 1, 1900. Computer programs will not recognize the 21st century without a massive rewriting of computer codes.

I first learned of all this in February and requested a study by the Congressional Research Service. The study, just now completed, substantiates the worst fears of the doomsayers. (A copy of the CRS study is attached.) The Year 2000 problem ("Y2K") is worldwide. Each line of computer code needs to be analyzed and either passed on or be rewritten. The banking system is particularly vulnerable. A money center bank may have 500 million lines of code to be revised at a cost of $1 per line. That's a $500 million problem. (I learn from Lanny Davis that his client, the Mars Company, estimates the cost of becoming Y2K date compliant at $100 million to $200 million. Mars is only a candy company.) One would expect that a quick fix of the problem would have been found but it hasn't happened and the experts tell me it is not likely.

There are three issues. First, the cost of reviewing and rewriting codes for Federal and state governments which will range in the billions of dollars over the next three years. Second, the question of whether there is time enough to get the job done and, if not, what sort of triage we may need. I am particularly concerned about the IRS and Social Security in this respect. Third, the question of what happens to the economy if the problem is not resolved by mid-1999? Are corporations and consumers not likely to withhold spending decisions and possibly even withdraw funds from banks if they fear the economy is facing chaos?

I have a recommendation. A Presidential aide should be appointed to take responsibility for assuring that all Federal agencies including the military be Y2K date compliant by January 1, 1999 and that all commercial and industrial firms do business with the Federal government also be compliant by that date. I am advised that the Pentagon is further ahead on the curve here than any of the Federal agencies. You may wish to turn to the military to take command of dealing with the problem.

The computer has been a blessing; if we don't act quickly, however, it could become the curse of the age.


Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Page put on web 1/14/99 at 12:45 PM, CST and modified 1/6/01 at 10:45 AM, CST.
A relevant timeline concerning Senator Moynihan's interest in this problem can be found here.
John Lindquist, Department of Bacteriology, University of Wisconsin – Madison.