In January, the Supreme Court is expected to redefine how far corporations can go in spending money on federal elections.
At question is whether corporate money can be used to promote or attack candidates. The case is another milestone in the world of money and politics, a place where there's been a lot of upheaval over the past decade.
Back in 2000 the public financing system was a fixture of American politics. It helped to underwrite candidates from Gerald Ford to Bill Clinton.
But then campaign budgets exploded, and fundraising went up 99 percent. The public financing system couldn't keep up.
Then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush took the first step by rejecting public funds in the primaries. He said the system was old and underfinanced.
Last year, then-Sen. Barack Obama took the final step and became the first candidate to turn down public funds for the fall campaign.
Former Federal Election Commission Chairman Bradley Smith says that's it for public funding. "Participating in the public financing system is now considered the mark of an unserious candidate," he says.
'Soft' Money Ban
Corporate money is illegal in federal elections, but the two major parties were hooked on it.
In 1999 and 2000, they raised nearly half a billion dollars from corporations, unions and the wealthy. So-called soft money.
Among the companies supplying soft money to the parties was Enron. One thing Enron lobbied for and got was financial deregulation.
Two senators, Republican John McCain and Democrat Russell Feingold, had a bill to ban soft money. When Enron collapsed in scandal in 2001, McCain and Feingold had enough support to make the bill law.
Feingold addressed the Senate just before the vote on final passage. "In this moment, we can show the American people that we are the Senate that they want us to be," he said.
McCain-Feingold pushed soft money out of the national parties, and a lot of it landed in new bank accounts at small nonprofit groups. These were groups that couldn't coordinate with candidates or party committees, but that shared the same partisan agenda.
In 2004, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth crippled the campaign of Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry. And in 2008 groups challenged the integrity of both presidential contenders and plenty of congressional candidates. The attacks are meaner, but these groups — unlike the political parties — aren't accountable to anyone.
"Candidates and especially incumbents are very nervous about an independent group coming in and spending a lot of money against them. And they're very fearful of that. At the end of the day, they want to get re-elected," says Larry Noble, a former Federal Election Commission counsel.
Earmarks, Rules, Laws
Last June, when the House passed a spending bill it included money for airplanes the Air Force hadn't asked for.
"The House just awarded hundreds of millions of dollars in the form of no-bid contracts, to companies whose executives and their lobbyists turned around and contributed tens of thousands of dollars to members of Congress who secured those no-bid contracts," says Republican Rep. Jeff Flake.
Congress has rules about earmarking. And there are laws, too. But some congressional staffers pleaded guilty to trading favors for earmarks in the scandal surrounding Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Republican Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham is in prison after selling earmarks for huge bribes.
It's a bipartisan problem.
The Justice Department is investigating Democratic Rep. Peter Visclosky and may be looking into some other Democratic earmarkers.
Rick Hasen, who teaches campaign finance and ethics at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, says things are marginally better because Congress has tightened up the laws.
But then, he points out, there's that Supreme Court decision coming up that could change everything.
"The way that the Supreme Court has been interpreting campaign finance law could well lead us into a spiral, where we end up with a deregulated campaign finance system," he says.
That would be a political system unlike any we've seen before.