WASHINGTON, D.C.--They call this get-together the

Year 2000 Conference & Expo,

but a better name would be: Fear and Loathing in D.C.

More than 600 government bureaucrats of every stripe -- from the Dade County tax collectors to Army officers -- are gathering this week at the Washington Sheraton to explore ways to deal with the Year 2000 problem.

The problem, for those Rip Van Winkling it, is that for decades, computer codes have used only two digits to handle dates, as in 97. Twenty-six years ago, as computers calculated things like 30-year bond maturities, it became apparent that computers might assume that 00 means the year 1900, not 2000. Such an assumption would throw many programs into terrible tizzies.

Despite some doubt, many experts now believe that catastrophic Y2K (that's the way people in the know say it) events will likely occur. Not just on Jan. 1, 2000, but most especially Jan. 3, 2000, the first working day of the new millennium.

Last year there was a general, if smirking, alarm in the mainstream press, and a dramatic run-up in Y2K stocks. And last week,

President Clinton

finally acknowledged Y2K woes, setting aside $2.3 billion in this year's federal budget to solve the problem. The problem is, that money -- if approved -- will not be available until 1998, and estimates from Y2K experts like the

Gartner Group

(GART)

put the government's Y2K fix at more like $30 billion.

"This is an unforgiving deadline," says Congressman Michael Hettinger of Virginia, who chairs a House Y2K subcommittee. "The problem is that there's still a lot of skepticism about this issue. I'm not sure there has been an appropriation of enough money to solve this, and we don't really have time to build a consensus understanding here. And I'm telling you that, ready or not, the end is coming and time is running out."

That kind of alarm is good news for the companies exhibiting here, such as

Accelr8 Technology

(ACLY)

,

CACI

(CACI) - Get Report

,

Data Dimensions

(DDIM)

,

IBM

(IBM) - Get Report

and

Sterling Software

(SSW) - Get Report

. Congressman Thomas Davis III has pushed through a plan that will allow government agencies to go outside glacial procurement programs and speed up Y2K spending, and the assembled Y2K companies were more than happy to sell their services.

To the assembled bureaucrats, though, the impending deadline simply seems to imbue fear. For that emotion is the one thing that all of these attendees seem to share -- that, and a remarkable propensity for bad hair and more

Sears

suits than a

Dean Witter

sales meeting. Some were near tears. "I just don't know how we're going to do this," says the Y2K "expert" from the

Veterans Hospital Administration.

"I'm 75% of my department's Y2K office, and I don't even know what I'm doing."

At times this conference has resembled an AA meeting, with one sad-eyed participant after another testifying about the escalating scope of the Y2K problem they're supposed to solve. Many are heartbroken to find out that this is not just a database issue, but a monster computer problem that could cause air conditioners to fire up in the middle of the winter and stop elevators from moving. Basically everything on earth that gets juice from a socket will start blinking stupidly like a VCR.

"We're going to find not just Y2K problems, but we're going to find all kinds of problems we'd never have tested for," says Julia McCreary, Year 2000 coordinator for the

IRS.

"And our costs of fixing this will grow exponentially."

The magic number here seems to be the average cost per line of code needed to fix this problem. Many here say they budgeted for $1 per line of computer code after using analytical tools like Sterling Software's Vision:Inspect. But once they get in there under the hood, many report that costs are ballooning to as much as $1.50 per line of code. But government budgets and hours to fix the problem are unforgiving, especially amid a new push to cut government spending.

"It's beyond too late for a lot of companies and government agencies," says William Ulrich, president of the

Tactical Strategy Group,

a Silicon Valley Y2K consultancy group. "We think they're looking at a triage situation. Had they addressed this a few years ago, they could have taken the opportunity to re-engineer or upgrade their systems -- now they're looking at dumping all but essential services."

It's that kind of reality that engenders the loathing. "I'm constantly trying to get my bosses' attention on this issue," said a

Department of Defense

Y2K glutton who asked to remain anonymous. "But he just doesn't want to hear it. He thinks Bill Gates is gonna come marching in with the final solution any day now. But you can bet your butt my boss will give me PLENTY of attention on January 3, 2000."

For the IRS -- which by all accounts is ahead of most government agencies in becoming "Year 2000 compliant" (another hot Y2K buzzword) -- the harsh reality is that it needs to process corporate taxes right after Dec. 31, 1999. But less important tasks, like turning out reports, will be left by the wayside. "We don't like it, but guys, these are tough decisions that have to be made," says the IRS' McCreary. "Can you live without your ATM card and your computer-generated bank statement? I don't think that many people are making realistic contingency plans."

McCreary says that tools and software might only amount to 1% of the IRS' Y2K budget -- but that could still total $500 million going to IRS contractors like Data Dimensions.

"It's 1997, and we're really almost out of time to get these systems in and tested," says McCreary. "If you don't have a contingency plan, you're gonna be in trouble. But I've got a contingency plan. I plan on taking up pottery in October 1999 and moving to Montana, where you can drive as fast as you want and they don't pay taxes."

By Cory Johnson

cjohnson@thestreet.com