For the 24 delegates on the General Assembly's House Environmental Matters Committee, the trouble started with the bottle bill, the controversial measure requiring mandatory deposits on beverage containers which was killed on the House floor earlier this month.

It was not just the bill's humiliating trouncing that annoyed some committee members; it was the way some of their committee colleagues had behaved.

When a crippling amendment was offered on the floor by the bill's opponents, several Environmental Matters members who had fought the bottle bill in committee voted for the change and thereby violated one of Annapolis' most respected unwritten laws. Committee members always support a bill their committee has aproved when hostile amendments are debated on the House floor, regardless of their own sentiments. Not until the second and final vote on the floor are they considered free to follow their own judgment.

So when conservative members of Environmental Matters bolted from th committee stance on that crippling amendment, they flouted what is known here as "the committee system" -- and bitter chaos has reigned in the committee ever since.

Following that vote, liberal members of the Environmental Matters, still smarting from the incident, have felt free to abandon the committee and vote against committee-approved bills during amendment debates on the House floor. Long-agonized discussions and recriminations have ensued during committee work sessions.

By this week, the internal controversy had split the committee into two, openly hostile camps -- the conservatives who had opposed the bottle bill and some consumer-oriented bills, and the "crazies," as the rebellious liberals have come to call themselves.

The hostility between the two sides was so great that some of the committee liberals prepared and mailed a "hate letter" to each of their conservative opponents late last week. The message spelled out in letters clipped from newspapers, read, "You can't soar with eagles when you have to work with turkeys -- signed, the Crazies."

The conservatives responded by taping their letters to the front of their committee room desks.

"It's like a war," said Del. Thomas Mooney (D-Prince George's) as Environmental Matters began its last two weeks of work. "We're completely polarized. It's going to be hard for us to work together on anything from now on."

Even if the committee struggles through the remaining days of this session without inflicting lasting damage on itself -- and that is uncertain -- the debate over the floor votes has raised some important questions about the way the legislature works.

For some committee members, the issue is one of loyalties: Does one stand, on an emotional issue, solely on personal and political principles, or respect the work and collective judgment of one's committee?

When committees elect to stand as a unit during amendment debates, as has been the tradition in Annapolis, they can be a potent force. A committee bloc of 24 votes often can mean the difference between death and enactment for controversial measures, which are frequently gutted not by the final vote, but by amendments attached by opponents.

In the wake of this year's turmoil, some Environmental Matters members are saying privately that the committee system is unreasonable and undemocratic. While forcing individual delegates to work against their own interests in some cases, they say, the committee rule serves only to increase the power and prestige of the committee chairmen, who can often swing a close vote in their panel's voting sessions, then force dissenters to support it on the floor.

Indeed no one is more unhappy about the split in Environmental Matters than Chairman Torrey Brown (D-Baltimore City). Last week, Brown sharply rebuked several committee members who switched sides on an important utility company regulation, almost causing the proposal to be killed with opponents' amendments.

But other legislators say that the importance of the current committee system goes far beyond the traditional pride of legislative chairmen. It is a practice that is essential, they say, for the three-month legislature composed of part-time politicians.

Because the legislature considers more than 3,000 bills during those three months, it is impossible for individual delegates and senators -- many of whom have little expertise in governmental matters -- to make an intelligent judgment about each bill.

Thus, legislative leaders say, the only hope the General Assembly has of being fair and reasonable most of the time is to depend on its committees, which at least take the time to hold public hearings and debate the merit of each bill they are assigned.

The judgment of the committees, leaders argue, should have a slightly disproportionate weight on the final votes in each house.

Perhaps the strongest argument that defenders of the committee system have, however, is the present state of Environmental Matters: divided, disorganized and ineffective. The customs cannot be broken, those delegates have found, without damaging the causes of all idealogical sides.