As Democrats limp back to Washington after a bruising general election, they've been preoccupied with a new fight: The internecine battle for the ranking member slot on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

That faceoff pitted the senior member, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), against minority leader Nancy Pelosi's pick, her fellow Californian Anna Eshoo. Pelosi lost that battle, in no small part, because the Congressional Black Caucus defied her and lined up behind Pallone.

There is an important historic reason why.

The reason the Black Caucus feels so strongly about the seniority system was explained to me years ago, when I first arrived in Washington, by Rep. Tom Foley (D-Wash.), who would go on to become House Speaker. He recalled that when he had come to Congress in the 1960s, there were still many segregationists in the institution. As Foley put it, some of these guys would have cut off an arm before they allowed an African-American member to hold a seat of power. But he said they would have cut off both arms before they violated the seniority system.

The first African-American to be given a committee chairmanship was William Dawson of Illinois, who in 1949 was tapped to head the Expenditures in the Executive Departments Committee, now known as Government Operations. Today, many of the most senior members of the House are members of the black caucus.  As the Crewof42 blog reported:

There are 21 permanent House committees, a Black Caucus member is set to be the most senior Democrat on a third of them — a total of seven committees.  Several Black Caucus members are hitting their peak seniority in 2015, with several others only one slot away.

They are:
1. John Conyers — Judiciary
2. Maxine Waters — Financial Services
3. Corrine Brown — Veterans Affairs
4. Eddie Bernice Johnson — Science, Space and Technology
5. Bobby Scott — Education and the Workforce
6. Bennie Thompson — Homeland Security
7. Elijah Cummings — Oversight and Government Reform