Two decades ago, with the Cold War receding and the world looking like a much less dangerous place, Congress passed a bill canceling former presidents' Secret Service protection 10 years after they left office, beginning with George W. Bush.
But now, with the war on terrorism presenting new dangers and presidents taking more active roles around the globe, the House did an about-face Wednesday, voting to restore life-long Secret Service protection to all ex-presidents.
"The increased mobility and youth of still-living former presidents, coupled with the national security threat posed to post-9/11 leaders who were instrumental in the war on terror, necessitates protection for life, as has been the case since the 1960s," said Rep. Trey Gowdy, the South Carolina Republican who is sponsoring the bill.
The legislation must still clear the Senate.
It's unclear what the cost would be because the Secret Service does not provide numbers. Nor is it clear what is driving the bill because Mr. Bush has another six years before he would lose his security detail.
Dan Emmett, a former Secret Service special agent and author of "Within Arm's Length," his memoir of 21 years on duty, said there is no reason why former presidents need the extra protection. He said five years should be enough.
"Protecting former presidents is phenomenally expensive and largely a courtesy rather than a necessity," said Mr. Emmett, who was in the Secret Service from 1983 through 2004. "Although an attack on a former president could happen any day, it is highly unlikely."
The bill on the House floor hasn't drawn much attention, and it is coming up for debate under expedited rules that usually are used for noncontroversial measures. It has the support of the top Republican and Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.
But its justification is less clear.
A Judiciary Committee staffer referred questions about the need for the law to the Secret Service, and a service spokesman declined to go into any details.
"This issue's been worked on with several congressional committees as the 10-year limitation on protection approaches," spokesman Ed Donovan said. "We currently protect all former presidents and we feel it's appropriate we continue to do so."
The Secret Service is an agency in the Homeland Security Department and either the president or the department's secretary can sign an order granting protection on an as-needed basis, which could be used when ex-presidents travel overseas on ambassadorial missions.
Mr. Donovan declined to say why that arrangement wouldn't work.
In addition to the sitting president and vice president and their immediate families, the Secret Service protects former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, Mr. Bush and his father, George H.W. Bush, and all of the families, as well as Nancy Reagan. Widows of former presidents are entitled to protection, too.
The service began to protect presidents in 1901 after the assassination of President McKinley. In 1965, Congress enacted a law establishing lifetime protection of former presidents.
The 1994 legislation, passed by Democrats and signed by Mr. Clinton, took effect for any president inaugurated after Mr. Clinton, meaning the younger Mr. Bush would be the first to lose his protection.
Rep. Howard Coble, a North Carolina Republican who led the fight in the 1990s to limit protection, said the 10-year mark was a good compromise then and still stands now.
"I think we have seen that being a former president can be a pretty lucrative career, and I feel that after 10 years, if these former presidents feel the need for additional security, they should pay for it themselves," he said Tuesday.
Former presidents get other taxpayer-funded benefits such as staff, office space and an annual pension, all of which totals about $4 million a year.
But having Secret Service protection is a status symbol of incalculable worth.
During presidential campaigns, candidates instantly gain more notice when they are granted protection, and it produces a dramatically different effect at events.
Mr. Emmett said former presidents love the fact that they have a driver who never gets lost, is always on time and, best of all, comes free of charge to them.
He said it would be easy for former presidents to outfit their own details, given the glut of retired agents with experience and the wealth that former presidents accumulate after they leave office.
Only one former president has been attacked -- Theodore Roosevelt, who was shot by an anarchist in 1912 even as he was campaigning for president on the progressive Bull Moose Party ticket. Iraqi intelligence agents plotted to assassinate George H.W. Bush with a car bomb in Kuwait in 1993, but that plan was foiled.
"Protection for former presidents has never really been based on hard intelligence but rather provided as a perk of the job," Mr. Emmett said.
Mr. Emmett points out that one former president, Richard M. Nixon, begged out of the arrangement. In 1985, 11 years after he left office, he said he no longer wanted the Secret Service detail.
"It is noteworthy, however, to mention he did not give up protection. He merely hired his own security. It seemed to work out fine," Mr. Emmett said.
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