IBM Doesn’t Donate to Politicians. Other Firms Should Take Note.

The only other large U.S. companies that appear not to engage in direct political donations are Automatic Data Processing, Fortune Brands, Mettler-Toledo, MSCI, Ralph Lauren, Schlumberger and Welltower, according to the Center for Political Accountability.

None of IBM’s policies prevent employees from making political donations on their own. Mr. Watson and his son were active in politics and had friendships with presidents, including Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.

When corporate PACs emerged as a phenomenon in the 1970s, IBM reaffirmed its aversion to political giving. It also doesn’t direct corporate money to other sorts of 527 organizations, which allow companies to channel money to candidates without giving to specific individuals, or “dark money” groups, which engage in influence campaigns without disclosing their donors.

“Our political actions center around issues, not candidates,” Frank Cary, IBM’s chief executive, told The Times in 1978. Indeed, IBM spends millions of dollars per year on lobbying, running an in-house government relations team and hiring external firms to argue the company’s case on specific rules and regulations.

In other words, companies should be free to “work the refs” on issues important to them. But they shouldn’t be paying the refs, too.

While supporters of campaign finance reform have long sought to limit corporate PAC contributions, Washington has been unwilling to reform itself. And why would it? And as for the companies, PAC money provides them with power and influence, so they have had little incentive to curtail themselves, either.

Yet at this moment in history, when many companies say they want to step up to address big public challenges even ahead of government leaders, what better opportunity to create real credibility and demonstrate leadership? This time, corporate America can make a powerful statement not with money, but without it.