The political antics in New York's capital of Albany have long made the state government the butt of jokes, but the laughter died away this week and was replaced with a slackjawed stare of disbelief as the political brawling reached cartoonish depths.
A fierce struggle between Republicans and Democrats for control of the state Senate was plunged into farce when the two parties held dueling legislative sessions, shouting at times to drown out the other side, under the Senate's ornate roof.
"People are describing this as a circus. But that is an insult to the circus," said Blair Horner, of the New York State Public Interest Research Group. "This is a comedy of errors -- without the comedy."
Two groups of senators talked and shouted over one another as the parallel Senates conducted business simultaneously. There were two Senate presidents, two sets of bills being voted on, even the hammering of competing gavels. Tempers repeatedly flared, and on more than one occasion senators had to step between their bickering colleagues.
"We have gone beyond embarrassing," said Barbara Bartoletti, the legislative director of the League of Women Voters. "All we are lacking is someone throwing shoes."
Gov. David Paterson, a Democrat, was more blunt. He said the Senate's behavior "disgusts me."
That anyone could be shocked or embarassed by anything in the state capital in Albany anymore is saying something.
Albany in general and the New York Legislature in particular have long been known as places where dysfunction rules and good ideas go to die.
This is, after all, the state where a governor (Eliot Spitzer) resigned for cavorting with a prostitute, and a state comptroller (Alan Hevesi), the official in charge of watching the people's money, had to quit for using state employees to chauffer his wife. Since then, Hevesi's top adviser has been ensnared in a blossoming pension fund scandal.
If legislators have become skilled at anything, it's the perp walk. At least a dozen have been indicted or imprisoned on assorted corruption charges in the last five years.
New York Legislature Turns Into Circus
Even the executive director of the state Public Integrity Commission, the agency that's supposed to keep watch on the executive branch, recently resigned following an investigation that found he leaked sensitive information.
It's enough to make Rufus T. Firefly and the Marxian (Groucho, not Karl) denizens of Fredonia blush. No surprise then that four in five New York voters view state government as "dysfunctional," according to a new poll by Quinnipiac University.
The chaos in the state Senate began early this month when two Democrats with checkered pasts crossed party lines to help the chamber's 30 Republicans seize the majority.
One of the turncoats, Sen. Hiram Monserrate of Queens, faces charges of slashing his girlfriend's face with a broken glass. The other, Sen. Pedro Espada Jr., is the subject of multiple investigations, including whether he has been living in his Bronx district.
Monserrate then switched back to the Democrats, creating a 31-31 split and the current deadlock. Several crucial pieces of legislation are languishing, including measures involving bond financing, municipal taxes and mayoral control of New York City schools.
At one point during the chaos, the Democrats hid the key to the chamber, so the Republicans couldn't enter and gavel the Legislature into session.
"New York State's political leadership has become an international laughingstock. We can't even do a coup d'etat right," columnist Fred LeBrun wrote in the Albany Times Union.
"We've gone from incompetence to chaos, which even in Albany can't be masqueraded as progress."
Paterson ordered Tuesday's Senate session to break the stalemate.
The Republicans planned to occupy the chamber at 2 p.m., an hour before Paterson's scheduled start time. But Democrats entered the chamber more than two hours early and seized control of the podium.
Both sides then launched their own cacophonous sessions.
"You have the kind of situation that leads nations to go to war. Neither side can compromise," said Alan Chartock, a former professor of political science, who is CEO and president of Northeast Public Radio.
"What we are seeing is a ferocious fight for political power between two evenly matched opponents who are using every tool in the toolbox to beat the other side, and, of course, the public is the big loser," Horner said. "They have scraped through the bottom of the barrel. The scary part is, the end is not in sight. I have never seen anything like this."