The second floor of the Lupton Library at UTC was completely empty Friday morning as Rep. Chuck Fleischmann walked alongside a student pulling a cart of books and journals to be shelved.
The congressman, who visited the library to perform a three-hour shift in his continuing series of Chuck on the Job events, advertised the event to media outlets as an opportunity for him to work the "job he had in college."
But the timing of Fleischmann's visit to the school came two weeks before rates on federally subsidized student loans are set to double, an issue that has taken a central position between Republicans and Democrats in an election year.
The current 3.4 percent rate on Stafford loans will jump to 6.8 percent on July 1 if Congress cannot come to an agreement on extending the current rate. Members of both Republican and Democratic parties are in consensus that the rate should not increase for the more than 7 million students receiving the loans, but differences on how to cover the estimated $6 billion cost has resulted in proposals from both parties being shot down.
Fleischmann said he was not willing to let politics get in the way seeing the current rates remain at 3.4 percent, but fell short of offering a potential solution for an agreement between Republicans and Democrats.
"I don't think it's really a party line," Fleischmann said. "Our bill passed in the House, and its focus was to reduce the student loan interest rate ... Unfortunately, it was a Democratic initiative that caused this to come into play years ago, and I don't know how that is playing into the negotiations at this point in time. All I know is my focus on the bill to keep student interest rates low, and that's how I voted."
Fleischmann did not mention that to pay for the extension, the Republican bill would have eliminated a preventive health care fund put in place as a part of President Barack Obama's 2010 heath care reform law. Because of its inclusion, the bill was viewed as dead on arrival in the Democrat-controlled Senate and threatened with a presidential veto prior to its passage in the House.
When asked why he thought the legislation had been rebuffed, Fleischmann said he wasn't sure.
"All I know is I have advocated to reduce the interest rates with the bill that we supported and passed," he said. "I don't want to speak for those who oppose it because I don't oppose that."
Collective debt on student loans recently surpassed both credit loans and auto loans as the single largest source of individual debt in the U.S.
In Tennessee, the average amount of debt for students graduating college in 2010 was $19,957, according to the Project on Student Debt.
Fleischmann, who said he took out $5,000 in student loans to help pay for his undergraduate studies at the University of Illinois, was scheduled to spend the rest of the morning working at the library.
Since taking office, the congressman has worked dozens of "shifts" at businesses across the 3rd District, including a pizza shop, a gas station and a Hallmark Store. Despite having only one student and two staffers—both equipped with cameras—on hand for Friday's event, Fleischmann, who is currently in his first bid for re-election, would not say if he intended to use photos or footage from his on-the-job events for his campaign.
"The best use of my Chuck on the Job has been in my official capacity," he said. "It keeps me well-grounded, whether I'm sweeping floors at a feed and seed or serving pizzas or working behind a counter. It does several things."
Fleischmann is running against Scottie Mayfield, Weston Wamp and Ron Bhalla in the Republican primary. Dr. Mary Headrick and Bill Taylor are seeking the 3rd District seat as Democrats.
The primaries are Aug. 2.