May 12, 2014 11:21 AM EDT

House Republicans are waging war against what they say is an “Imperial Presidency.” “Every month there’s another episode of the president going around the constitution,” declared Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan earlier this year. The need for Congress to reclaim power from the executive branch has emerged as a central theme of the midterm elections in GOP reports and talking points.

Last week, the GOP put their words into action. On Wednesday, the House voted to hold former IRS official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress for refusing to answer questions during two hearings into alleged political targeting of right wing groups by her office. The next day, the House voted to form a subpoena-wielding select committee to investigate the Obama administration’s handling of the attack on the U.S. facilities in Benghazi Sept. 11, 2012.

In the zero-sum world of Washington, where each of the three branches of government keep a jealous eye on power grabs by the other two, these latest moves by the House Republicans represent a big shift. Traditionally, GOP leaders have opposed powerful Congresses and many have sought to expand Presidential powers. (Don’t get them started on judicial activism). But it seems the era of the Tea Party, built on anti-executive opposition to Obamacare and Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform, has Congressional Republicans embracing a shift of power away from the executive branch to the lawmakers and overseers on Capitol Hill.

Will it last? The House Republicans say they are driven by a principled desire to rein in an overreaching executive branch—in the parlance, “a tyrant”. Democrats for their part, say the GOP Congress is engaging in a short-term partisan play for electoral advantage come November.

Over the last two decades, Republicans have more often than not sought to amass power when they control the White House and give it away when they control Congress. The most famous proponent of this tendency was Dick Cheney. At the White House in the aftermath of Watergate, Cheney later said, he saw a Democratic-led Congress draining power from a Republican-led executive branch. When he got back to the White House under George W. Bush he made it a stated goal to get that power back for the President.

In major Bush era legislation, the Republican Party in Congress sought to give power to the president, and often succeeded. The 2001 USA Patriot Act, which expanded presidential power and rolled back Congressionally imposed controls on intelligence collection and sharing, had near total GOP support. Republicans voted 211-3 for the bill while Democrats split 145-62. When the Patriot Act was reauthorized in 2006, 13 Republicans and 124 Democrats voted against it in the House.

Likewise the Homeland Security Act of 2002, which created the Homeland Security Department and gave it broad Patriot Act powers, was supported by 207 Republicans in the House and opposed by 10. House Democrats voted 88 in favor of the Act and 120 against.

There are counter-indicators. With near-total Republican opposition, the more recent Democratic-led Congresses pushed through Obamacare and Dodd-Frank, giving broad new regulatory power to the executive branch. Votes “are so infused by partisanship that its very hard to disentangle where their principles are coming from,” says Sarah Binder, an expert on Congress at the Brookings Institution. Over time though, Binder says, “It’s easier to find examples of the [Congressional] GOP handing keys to the White House.”

Structurally, Congress has tended to be weaker, or at least smaller and less active, under Republicans over the last 20 years. In the 102nd and 103rd Congresses from 1991-94, when the House was controlled by Democrats, the number of committees peaked at 185, the number of staffers hit 2,321, the number of bills introduced topped 6,700 and the number of committee and subcommittee meetings was 5,152, according to data compiled by the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution.

When the Republican party under Newt Gingrich took over the House for the first time in decades in the 104th Congress, the number of House committees dropped to 110, the number of staffers was slashed to 1,266, the number of Bills dropped to 4,542 and the number of committee and subcommittee meetings dropped to 3,796. The Republicans held the House until early 2007 and the numbers stayed relatively flat or ticked up slightly. They then jumped when Democrats took over in 2007.

Republicans have been active overseers in the House and the Senate. In the Nixon era, GOP Senator Howard Baker was a powerful vice chairman of the Watergate committee. More recently, Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa and Senator John McCain of Arizona pursued waste, fraud and abuse in the executive branch under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Under Obama, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, led by Darrell Issa, has grabbed headlines with Issa’s investigations of the Fast and Furious “gun-walking” controversy and the IRS.

But the best way to assess whether the GOP’s current enthusiasm for investigations is political or principled is to see whether the results are permanent. The Iran-Contra hearings helped establish the clear prohibition on independent, White House-run covert actions and the diversion of Congressional appropriations for unauthorized purposes. The investigations and impeachment of Bill Clinton left no long-term change in the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches. Grassley and McCain’s investigations helped lead to tighter ethics restrictions in Congress and stronger inspectors general in the executive branch.

So far, Issa’s high-volume investigations have left little imprint on either Congress or the White House. If the GOP House leaders want to convince Americans they’re undertaking a principled effort to rein in an overreaching executive and not just a partisan effort to boost their electoral chances and fundraising, they should go for long term results, not just temporary attention.

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