Washington De-Bugs Its Y2K Legislation

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At last, Washington has decided how it wants to contain the possible flood of litigation that potential Y2K disruptions might unleash. Late Thursday, a bill acceptable to the White House finally cleared the Senate by a vote of 81 to 18 after having passed the House earlier in the day 404 to 24. Caught between its big supporters in Silicon Valley (who together with the broader business community aggressively pushed for the legislation) and its friends among trial lawyers and consumer groups (who just as aggressively opposed it), the Clinton administration accepted the latest compromise bill after some last-minute wavering and tinkering. The final measure tries to encourage mediation and gives companies a 90-day period to fix a computer glitch before a plaintiff can file suit. It also caps punitive damages for small businesses, limits class-action lawsuits and in most cases holds companies liable only for the damage they cause.

The wrangle over the legislation was as much over policy as over politics. On the policy front, says TIME White House correspondent Jay Branegan, "Republicans tried to use the Y2K legislation to take a big whack at tort reform, but the White House succeeded in keeping the measure limited to Y2K issues." Vice President Al Gore, whose hands were all over the bill because of its possible implications for his presidential candidacy, also worked hard to include incentives that would encourage companies to fix Y2K problems. On the political front, "Republicans maneuvered the legislation so as to force Gore to choose between his political buddies," say Branegan. In the end, the veep and the President decided to come down on the side of their high-tech friends, says Branegan, but only "after pounding out a bill that was the least objectionable to trial lawyers and consumers."