A ranking member is a member of a congressional committee or legislative committee who is the second in command, or is perhaps the leader of the minority in the committee. In some cases, the term ranking minority member is used to differentiate who is in the minority, but that may not always be the case, depending on the standard practices for the state or country. This member may not have all the duties of the chairman, but may still have some additional tasks to perform.
Typically, the ranking member designation is bestowed on the senior member of the committee, if that person is not the chairman. If the chairman is the senior member, then the title is often given to the second-most senior member. Still, this is not a steadfast rule. Ranking member status may be bestowed upon individuals because they may have some direct experience with certain issues that makes their input on the committee more valuable.
One of the most common tasks a ranking member will perform is to deal with other members of his or her party to determine where the votes are on a given issue. In the full legislative body, this person is known as a "whip." In a committee setting, there is no whip because it is a much more intimate experience. The committee phase is where much of the legislative action takes place, such as testimony and other legislative hearings. The ranking member may be responsible for inviting or providing some of these individuals.
In some cases, the ranking member of a committee may also serve as the vice chair. In the chairman’s absence, it is then up to this member to run the committee meeting. This may be a largely procedural matter, but the individual may have the power to at least delay a vote on an issue until the chairman can return, and make a more permanent decision.
As with any committee procedure, the ranking member does not have a great deal of power in relation to the other members. The chairman can often unilaterally bring up or stop an issue in the committee, but that is not a privilege often extended to ranking members. Each member of the committee receives one vote, but the ranking member may be able to influence others more easily, by threatening to convince others to vote one way or another on an issue. New legislators may be especially receptive to the position of a more senior member.