Rep. Ed Jenkins during the questioning of Adm. Poindexter on July 17, 1987. Jenkins, a conservative Georgia Democrat who served in Congress from 1977 to 1993, died Jan. 1, 2012, at a hospital in Atlanta. He was 78. (James K. W. Atherton/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Former U.S. representative Ed Jenkins, a Georgia Democrat who championed the Southern textile industry as a member of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, died Jan. 1 at a hospital in Atlanta. He was 78.

His daughter Janice Jenkins Anderson confirmed the death but declined to disclose the cause.

Rep. Jenkins represented northern Georgia in the U.S. House from 1977 to 1993. A former assistant U.S. attorney, he developed a low-key, amiable style that earned him respect on Capitol Hill. He often was a bridge between Southern Democrats and their colleagues in the North.

In 1987, during the congressional hearings over the Iran-contra scandal, Rep. Jenkins was placed on a special investigative committee despite his lack of a committee chairmanship or special expertise on the subject. His selection for the panel was regarded as a show of his colleagues’ respect for him.

The Almanac of American Politics once described Rep. Jenkins as “one of the smartest political operators on Capitol Hill” and “a man who must be consulted on many legislative issues.”

Part of Rep. Jenkins’s influence derived from his friendship with Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), who chaired the Ways and Means Committee.

As a member of that panel, Rep. Jenkins made the textile industry of northern Georgia his chief concern. Like the mills of New England decades earlier, Southern factories were facing withering competition from cheaper labor — this time from abroad.

Rep. Jenkins set out to protect his region’s industry from foreign competition. He once warned that a failure to curb imports would make the United States a “weak nation.”

He championed bills that beefed up quotas and other protectionist measures. In 1985, he came close to winning enactment of the Textile and Apparel Trade Enforcement Act, which would have slashed clothing and other imports. Congress failed to override the veto by President Ronald Reagan, who feared that the measure would backfire and cause other nations to retaliate.

Rep. Jenkins showed a maverick streak in 1989, when he opposed Rostenkowski in a debate about capital gains taxes, the taxes paid on the sale of stocks and other assets. Rep. Jenkins went around Rostenkowski to rustle up the votes needed to pass in the House a measure that would have lowered capital gains taxes. (It later died in the Senate.)

During the Iran-contra hearings, Rep. Jenkins sparred with Marine Corps Lt. Col. Oliver L. North. North, a National Security Council staff member, was accused of organizing an exchange in which proceeds from arms sold to Iran were diverted to the contras fighting the Marxist Sandinistas in Nicaragua.

“What concerns me from your testimony,” Rep. Jenkins said to North, “is that not a single official elected by the people of the United States of America had any knowledge about the use” of a secret fund to conduct covert operations.

In 1989, Rep. Jenkins unsuccessfully challenged Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) for the position of House majority leader. He did not seek reelection in 1992.

Edgar Lanier Jenkins was born Jan. 4, 1933, in Young Harris, Ga. He graduated in 1951 from Young Harris College, where one of his classmates was Zell Miller, a future Georgia governor and U.S. senator.

Rep. Jenkins served in the Coast Guard before receiving a law degree from the University of Georgia in 1959.

After his service in the House, he formed a D.C.-based tax-and-trade consulting firm. He later worked on his family farm. His chief legislative accomplishments, he said, included successful efforts to preserve wilderness lands and the forests of the North Georgia mountains.

Survivors include his wife of 51 years, Jo Thomasson Jenkins of Jasper, Ga.; two children, Janice Jenkins Anderson of Roswell, Ga., and Amy Jenkins Dotson of Jasper; two brothers; three sisters; and two grandchildren.