The two lobbyists had barely settled into their chairs in the House of Delegates committee room when they got their first whiff of trouble. "Oh, no," remarked one to the other with a sigh. "It looks like its going to be a zoo tonight."

Seated at the long table before them with more than a dozen wisecracking colleagues, white-haired committee chairman George E. Allen Jr. was futilely trying to gavel for order."All right, the bill's been reported," Allen sang out -- then paused. "I mean it's been [killed]." Another pause. "What was it we just did?"

"What do you mean 'It's been reported?'" protested Del Floyd Bagley, (D-Prince William), interrupting his conversation with a colleague. "I haven't voted on it yet."

The 66-year-old Allen shot a troubled look at Del. Hardaway Marks (D-Hopewell), his right-hand man on the committee, then lightly tapped his gavel on his balding head in confusion. "All right, gentlemen," Allen agreed. "Let's vote on this nice bill."

"Vote on the bill?" yelped Del. Bernard S. Cohen (D-Alexandria). "We've already voted on it twice."

A third voice came from the far end of the committee table. "Which bill are we talking about?" called Del. Raymond Robrecht (R-Salem) plaintively, as the committee room erupted into laughter.

For Allen, a wealthy negligence lawyer who has styled himself as the protector of the rights of accident victims in the state legislature, chairmanship of the powerful House Courts of Justice Committee would appear to be the crowning achievement of a legislative career that began more than 25 years ago.

Many in the legislature say Allen is botching his duties as chairman, failing to direct the panel's legislative workload and relying increasingly on the other 19 committee members for judgments that traditionally have come from the chairman.

As a result of a seniority system that keeps him firmly in power, say many who criticize Allen privately, chaos and confusion are often bywords of his committee as it attempts to oversee the state's legal structure and help select its judges.

"George is a disgrace to the General Assembly and everybody knows it, but nobody has the nerve to do anything about it," grumbles one senator who has brought bills before Allen's committee. "They keep thinking that maybe next term he won't be back, but he keeps running again and he keeps getting reelected."

Allen, who also has gotten into hot water this term over allegations that he championed bills to benefit his law practice and gutted a conflict of interest measure, concedes that he often asks other committee members which bill is before the committee, but says that doesn't mean he's out of touch. He's just trying to show some consideration for the committee clerk, who, he says, "gets mixed up on the bills because he can't go but so fast . . . I'm checking up on him."

It's also true, Allen says, that he most often asks for the opinion of key stalwarts on the panel before casting his own vote, but that's just because his committee considers so many bills that he can't possibly remember them all. "They [other committee members] are the people who have handled these things in subcommittee -- not me," he says. "I'm not a criminal lawyer. I don't know the criminal law. What would you do if it were you?"

Allen flatly rejects any suggestion that his committee deserves to be called a "circus," a "zoo," or Richmond's answer to "The Three Stooges," as panel members and staff alike refer to it in private. He also denies that his subdued style allows committee members to misbehave at meetings.

"I'm not a Mr. Milquetoast, the way some people think," says Allen. "I'll call them [committee members] down when they need it."

Members of the panel, although critical of Allen in private, say the legislature's old boy network makes it politically dangerous to speak against him in public. "I've got to work with him and I don't want to generate the ill will of those who protect him," said one. "I just don't need to become that sort of target."

It is that network, reinforced by Virginia's time-honored seniority system, that makes it extremely unlikely Allen will be relieved of his post. "You don't even think that," said Del. Frank Slayton (D-Halifax). "To do that would threaten the entire system. The way the legislature is put together, even if it's not perfect, we avoid the infighting that goes on in so many other legislatures. We can avoid all the turmoil and ill will that are inevitably caused by people jockeying for position."

To the casual observer, unaccustomed to the apparent disorganization and light-hearted confusion that are daily fare in this committee, the repartee between Allen, his colleagues and committee witnesses often is entertaining.

Not infrequently, Allen is seen introducing bills in the middle of roll call votes, losing his place in the committee's agenda, and ignoring the motions and seconds of committeemen. Committee members sometimes bypass him to conduct lengthy arguments at one or both ends of the long committee table, while other assembly members wait patiently -- sometimes for hours -- for a chance to represent their bills.

"It's not a fun place to go if you're going over from the Senate. You never know how long you're going to wait," says Sen. Wiley Mitchell (R-Alexandria), calling the panel "indiscriminate in its inhospitality" toward both Democrats and Republicans. "It's really a case of benign neglect."

Del. Marks, an old-line Democrat and long-time personal friend of Allen, says he can't understand what all the fuss is about. "It's not chaotic," he says. "This reputation is caused by reporters who don't understand. It's a very busy committee. We've handled over 200 pieces of legislation this time, and I think George does a remarkable job under the circumstances."

Others in the General Assembly say it is Marks, next in line for the committee chairmanship, and Newport News Democrat Theodore V. Morrison Jr., a protege of House Speaker A.L. Philpott, who are the moving force behind the committee. They say Philpott is able to control the committee almost as effectively through those two legislators as he did during the years when he was a member of the panel, before he assumed the speakership last year.

Philpott impatiently rejects such suggestions, but Marks doesn't argue with those who say Allen exerts scant control over his 19 colleagues. "Nobody really runs that committee," he says. "It's the most democratic committee in the General Assembly." Perhaps, some suggest, Allen's acknowledged interest in his automobile negligence law firm simply excludes the consideration of less pressing topics from his mind.

On a recent legislative bus tour of Northern Virginia, Allen was looking out the window when a car skidded into one of the convoy's motorcycle police escorts, sending the officer sprawling to the ground. While all the other bus passengers exchanged expressions of dismay over the fallen policeman, Allen was thinking of something else. "Y'll give him my card, you hear?" he quipped.